On a lark, the other day, listless and distracted, I return to Ron Rolheiser’s website, just to see what the priest and retreat master has written lately. I used to anticipate and devour his weekly columns. As I read about Christmas and the Incarnation, and Rolheiser’s message sinks in, I am able to name the malaise that has infiltrated me during the last eighteen months, and sometimes even threatened paralysis. Pain.
Pain, when absence of a common vision defaults to the status quo;
Pain, as media twist headlines so that a story about a funeralhome charging a family $100 carbon tax (instead of $1.00) for cremation becomes a story about carbon tax instead of a story about the funeral home’s error or deception, whichever is the case;
Pain, as a Prime Minister with the common touch and a progressive agenda I support takes a holiday without first checking the details with the Ethics Commissioner, and in so doing jeopardizes the good he can do because he appears elitist and hypocritical;
Pain, when I see fake news, logical fallacies, insults, and derision used to advance an ideology;
Pain, as the bullying strategy of a pathological liar who took the scab off the underbelly of humanity was rewarded, and he took the oath of office as President of the United States;
Pain, as protesters whose frustration I understand resort to violence in their outrage.
Even at Christmas, and, indeed in the essence of the Christmas story, Rolheiser says, "pain lingers." Lucky for me, he not only helped name my malaise; he had a suggestion for managing it. I must "burrow deep into the heart of planet earth and find it shimmering with divinity." In order words, I have to grab onto my joy with both hands and fight for it. My children’s passion, my grandsons’ laughter, my husband’s caring, all give me life. It’s easy to find joy there. No effort required.
To honor Rolheiser’s words, though, I need to see divinity around me every day. I have to admit, when I look around, that’s maybe not as difficult as I’m making it out to be. I witness a parish raise twenty thousand dollars in five months to sponsor a refugee family and furnish a home. I watch members of our Refugee Sponsorship Committee put their lives on hold to orient them in their first year among us. Our neighbours clear the snow on our triple driveway while we’re away. Sunrise dazzles each day and warms my heart. Friends grace our table.
I can also take a lesson from President Obama, who stayed grounded through eight stressful years in office by reading ten letters each day from Americans. The 10 LADs, as his staffed called them, reminded him of the reason for his work. They also enabled him to salvage his joy. He says,
“I tell you, one of the things I’m proud of about having been in this office is that I don’t feel like I’ve ... lost myself . . . I feel as if — even if my skin is thicker from, you know, public criticism and I’m wiser about the workings of government, I haven’t become ... cynical, and I haven’t become callused. And I would like to think that these letters have something to do with that.” (Jeanne Marie Laskasjan, New York Times, January 17, 2017)
These role models are important, because hanging on to joy is just one half of the equation. The other, as Jennifer Welsh says in The Return of History: Conflict, Migration and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century, is action. Each of us has a responsibility to go beyond understanding the forces at work in our society. We must work to build the free and generous society we value.
"If we want a deeper transformation," she says,
we have to initiate it ourselves. We can learn from the movers and shakers, the celebrated or the unacknowledged, of the twentieth century: Individuals stepping up to draw attention to injustice, to demand greater equality of participation, and to stand up for fairness. And they did so knowing that their demands would likely involve some personal sacrifice. (p. 295)
So pain is inescapable.