Holidays like Christmas and New Year suspend our regular everyday lives in ways that might seem like an escape. The time off extends the notion of time spent; chronological time stands still when our presence in the moment demands our attention.
While a respite of sorts, I often meet these interruptions with anxiousness. If I’m really quiet and keep the dog quiet, I’m able to at least enjoy a few moments of regular morning routine in the midst of visiting sleeping family. Even in these quiet moments, I worry about what to fix for meals, did I have enough, and how can I listen more instead of encouraging my own agenda.
Giving up that anxiousness is a challenge that forces me to consider what matters again and how; questions that return over and over, not just at this time. I thought about a few Christmas’ past spent with what appeared to be an idyllic family.
Wally was in his seventies when I first met him, a stately man with five grown children. He was a storyteller; recounting earlier days in the community where he’d lived his entire life. Listening to him and his friend, Jack, their lives always seemed full of promise and prosperity. Nostalgic reminiscing is like that; viewing life from a vantage point where whatever happened was made right in the remembering.
The puzzling or maybe enviable stance for me was that even though I knew all was not “right” with his five children and their children and their children, that circumstance didn’t seem to affect his living abundantly. Did he not realize the struggles of those around him and maybe even his own from time to time? Did he choose to live his own life generatively without getting caught up in others’ stuff? Was faith in a greater Presence keeping him above the tensions and realities of those lives?
None of these questions get at the heart of my observation and ultimately at how I meet these days. Again, Buechner’s words help me weave Wally’s stories, Jesus’ wisdom, and my faith experience to make sense for a moment of my own way in the world.
Religion has often been denounced as escapism, and it often is. To deny the prevalence of pain in the world and the perennial popularity of evil. To abdicate responsibility for them by assuming that God will take care of them very nicely on his own. To accept them as divine judgment upon the sins especially of other people. To dismiss them or to encourage others to dismiss them by stressing the promise of pie in the sky. To pretend like a Forest Lawn cosmetologist that there’s no such thing as death. To maintain your faith by refusing to face any nasty fact that threatens it. These are all ways of escaping reality through religion and should be denounced right along with such other modern modes of escape as liquor, drugs, TV, or any simplistic optimism such as communism, anticommunism, jingoism, rugged individualism, moralism, idealism and so on, which assume that if everybody would only see it our way, evil would vanish and all would be sweetness and light.
But the desire to escape is not always something to be denounced, as any prisoner or slave could tell you. Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8: 31-32). Free from sin, he explained when they pressed him. Free from imprisonment within the narrow walls of your own not-all-that-enlightened self-interest. Free from enslavement to your own shabbiest instincts, deceits, and self-deceptions. Freedom not from responsibility but for it. Escape not from reality but into it.
The best moments we any of us have as human beings are those moments when for a little while it is possible to escape the squirrel-cage of being me into the landscape of being us.