Sunday, December 5, 2010

Running Away from Christmas

A young kid was in big trouble with his Dad. He was sent to his room, where he stayed for an hour. His Dad came in and found him packing some of his clothes, his teddy bear and his piggy bank. The kid said indignantly, “I’m running away from home!”

“What if you get hungry?” the father asked.

“Then I’ll come home and eat and then leave again!” said the child.

“And what if you run out of money?”

“I will come home, get some money and then leave again!” replied the child.

“What if your clothes get dirty?”

“Then I’ll come home and let mommy wash them and then leave again,” he said.

The Dad shook his head and exclaimed, “This kid is not running away from home; he’s going to college.”

Sound familiar?

Did you ever run away from home as a kid? I remember packing a bag and heading out the back gate. I did a couple of laps of the block, passing a neighbor each time I went by. She eventually asked me what I was doing. I said, “I’m running away from home but Mom says I’m not allowed to cross the road so I’m trying to find a way around it. I wasn’t the smartest kid.

It turns out that running away is a lifelong habit for most of us and it can get a lot more serious than childhood tantrums. I met many runaways when I worked in the inner city of Sydney. They were running away for a variety of reasons- abuse, mental illnesses, debt, crime, confusion. Many of them used different names and kept their cards close to their chest.

I became friends with one particular homeless guy who was running away from some big problems. He was the kindest person I’ve ever known. They called him “the bear” in the neighborhood because he was fiercely protective and he gave big hugs. We spent hours chatting about life and pain and meaning. He didn’t tell me much about his past and I didn’t ask. But he hinted that there had been abuse at the hands of a Catholic Priest. He became my guardian angel in the neighborhood, telling people I was “okay” and introducing me to some of the most desperate people I have ever met.

When he got bronchitis, I let bear sleep in the church. That was when it happened. As soon as I opened the door of the church I could tell that something was wrong. I was devastated to find him dead with a stick of heroine in one arm and another stick lying next to him. We posted notice of his death hoping that family would come forward but there was no response. So a few of us put some money together to make sure Bear got a proper send off. At the funeral I had a church full of free spirited streeties. They were impossible to control, so I just let them do their thing. People wondered in and out of the building, went outside to shoot up before coming back in to weep and pay their respects. It was what it needed to be.

About 6 months later I received a phone call. A woman on the other end of the phone said she was Bear’s mother, although she called him “Brad”. She had just heard the news about her son. She was inconsolable. Meg and I hosted bear’s parents and sister in our home. I took them to the places where Bear used to hang, introduced them to his friends and we did another ceremony at the gravesite. They told me some of his story and their shock that he ended up on the streets. They told me about the abuse. They described how he got on the wrong side of some bikers in another state. He needed to protect his daughter, so he left behind his family, moved to Sydney, grew a long beard, changed his name and lived anonymously on the streets. They hadn’t heard from him in two years. If only you could have heard bear’s mother describe her boy, bear’s close relationship with his daughter, how he cleaned the house with her draped over his shoulder like a tea towel. This was like any young guy you have ever met. He just had some awful secrets and made some tragic mistakes. So he did the only thing he could think to do. He ran away.

As much as I admired Bear, running away didn’t work for him. His past was right with him everywhere he went. We’re all running away from something, aren’t we? Whether it’s an extreme situation like abuse or debt, or more everyday situations like haunting memories or poor choices, we are all running away from something. What are you running from? Why are you running? Sometimes you’re right to move or change locations, but don’t run away. You run because you’re afraid. You run because you’re in denial. You run because you think there’s some safer, better place. Stop. You can’t run away from a problem because you will still be there and you and your voice of judgment are at least 50% of the problem. Wherever you go, there you will be with the same unresolved issue and the same self loathing. Maybe it’s time to stop running and start accepting the fragile beauty of your humanity. See yourself the way the rest of us see you.

What Are You Looking For At Christmas?

Christmas is often a time that brings our deepest insecurities to the surface. I don’t know what it is- maybe it’s the traditions, maybe it’s time with family or in-your-face consumerism that makes global suffering more stark. Something about Christmas brings the realities of life into new focus. Some of us would like to run away from Christmas some years. So let me ask you a question- what are you looking to get from the Christmas story? Are you looking for a Disney style story that helps you run away from the realities of life or are you looking for an affirmation that life is tough and some real world inspiration to stick with it? Are you looking for the romantic myth of a virgin birth or the stark reality of a young couple trying to make the best of a confusing situation?

Are you looking for the sugar-coated story of angels with golden wings floating in from outer space with divine messages, or the reality of a frightened couple trying to follow their instincts and discern some meaning in their struggle?

Most of us don’t live sugar-coated lives. The sickly sweet fairytale Christmas story that is often presented offers little to the harsh reality of our lives; teenage pregnancies, unwanted pregnancies, ethnic genocide, global poverty, religious rivalry, family betrayals, personal demons and relationship anguish.

On the other hand, the historical context which paints a more accurate backdrop to the beginnings of Jesus’ life says something profound to the realities of life. From the time Mary became pregnant, to the decisions of a family struggling to make ends meet, to the life of a struggling revolutionary, this was a story of survival against the odds.

The real world Christmas story names the struggles of your life and our world. May you hear in the raw, the real, the radical, the earthy struggles of the family of Jesus, echoes of life as you know it to be. You don’t need to run away. You have all you need right here and now to live fully and survive against any odds, and to be an angel of compassion in the world. Stand in the fire of life without flinching. Your strength will carry you through.

Running Away From Secrets

One part of the Christmas story that has very little historical basis is Herod and the slaughter of the children. Herod was a corrupt tyrant, but there is no evidence that he chased Jesus and his family nor ordered any babies to be killed. It’s more likely that Matthew fabricates this part of the story to connect Jesus’ birth with the Moses story to connect with his Jewish audience.

The birth story was written by people who had second hand experience of the adult Jesus. The impact of Jesus seems to have been so great that they created a birth story that would be remembered, maybe even retold each year for thousands of years. The star, the angels, the dreams- these are all details that fit the birth of a God/king. But the escape from Herod patterned after Moses’ escape from Pharoah. Why include this seamy detail? Maybe to show that life is tough and complicated even for great leaders like Jesus. He too was running in fear. Maybe to show that life is rarely black and white, and decisions are made in the heat of battle.

Stories like this take place in all times and all places. In 2006, in the town of Samarra, 100 kilometers north of Baghdad, Khalib was in a rush to get to the hospital. His pregnant sister was his passenger. She was in labor and Khalib had to get her to the hospital. They made their way down the usual streets. But down one street the U.S. military set up a checkpoint. The soldiers perceived the approaching vehicle as a threat, so they opened fire and ended up killing Nabiha and the child in her womb.

This is one among many such horror stories. I don’t tell the story to criticize the soldiers. I’m not interested in second guessing what other people do in situations in which I have no knowledge or experience. The significant thing about this story is that no one knew about it until Wikileaks published documents this year outlining specific accounts of civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are some uncanny similarities between Wikileaks and the story of Herod – the mysterious sources of information, the backroom deals and corruption. Wikileaks is on a mission to expose the secrets of modern day Herods. I’m fascinated by the conversations around Wikileaks, It seems at root to be an issue of trust. The people who have little trust in world governments are supportive of Wikileaks, and want to be given more information. The more trust governments have in the people, the more information they will disclose. Trust is a two way street and the existence of Wikileaks is a symptom of lack of trust.

Time will tell if Wikileaks serves the greater good by raising the level of integrity among leaders, or whether it will get in the way of essential leadership functions and puts lives in danger. It’s certainly not a black and white issue. We are living in gray days of information, secrecy and a new world order. At least Wikileaks serves as a balancing force between leadership and the people. Greater transparency and higher integrity are clearly demanded.

If the Christmas story and the Wikileaks revelations achieve anything, it will be that they call every one of us to be the Christmas miracle that we hope for. If you aren’t proud to have anything you say or do be reported on a website, then don’t say or do it. Live with such integrity that you would be pleased to see your words and actions live on in public record for generations. And don’t give up, even on the grayest day and in the deepest despair. For every Herod, there is public official leading with integrity and a family doing the best they can. For every Wikileaks report of corruption there is another story of people living with extraordinary integrity. Keep at it. Don’t run away. You have all you need right here and now. Shine your own Christmas light in the world. Namaste.


Iwanjka - LunaXme said...

A good story, thanx for sharing!
And about Wikileaks: Transparancy is the way of light....


Janet Pal said...

Ian, thank you...for being there for Bear during his time of need, for the reminder that "wherever you go, there you are" and for shining your light of integrity and peace, hope, joy and love in the world.