A Season for what?
In my previous column I made light of the human propensity to whine — a trait at least as common among outdoor enthusiasts as in the general population. And November and December are especially good months for complaining. For one thing, it is the season for steelhead fishing and duck hunting. Of all hunting and fishing sports, these may be the two that inflict the most suffering, and thus also engender the greatest level of stoic pride among participants.
One of the central points of the suffering endured in these two activities is that it is voluntary. The same is true of all outdoor sports — and, indeed, of sports of any kind. The regional sports media was abuzz with excitement a week ago Monday morning over the gritty performance of Patriots receiver Wes Welker who returned to the huddle with blood in his mouth after being the recipient of a bone-crushing hit, and still came out pumping his fists. He may not have enjoyed the pain, but he chose to play, and to stay on the field, and there is no doubt that he felt satisfaction in his part in the victory.
An overnight hike up my favorite mountain in Maine leaves me sore in the knees. And when I crawl out of my sleeping bag the next morning, after a restless night on hard ground, I will be even achier. But I love the fresh air; the chance to be in the wilderness, away from addicting conveniences; the exercise; the company of fellow backpackers; the fun of fly-fishing in the remote pond at the top; and especially the stunning views. So I choose to endure the pain and discomfort of backpacking.
By contrast, the suffering endured daily by many people is not voluntary. It is not endured by choice for the sake of a greater gain. It is not done for bragging rights. It is endured because they have no choice. I have friends who work in poverty-stricken Juarez, Mexico, where people live in shacks built on top of old landfills. When I spend a night in a waterproof $300 tent, sleeping in a $200 insulated bag, I am mindful that there are people whose houses are less comfortable, less dry, less warm (and worth less money) than that camping gear. When I eat a backpacking dinner out of a pouch, and think what a measly meal it is, I remember that it is more nutrition than many people will get in a day.
And here I am writing about this at Christmas. It is the season of Rudolph, Frosty, Santa and holiday parties. It’s the season of carols and bells and trees and, especially, shopping. It’s the season of cheer. Isn’t it?
For me, it usually is. For many it is not. For those suffering grief of loss, or anguish of poverty or disease, it is often the most difficult time of the year. It is a time when suffering — not the temporary kind endured by hunters, campers, and anglers, but the inescapable kind that will be waiting for you the next day and the day after — are even more poignant and oppressive because of the seeming cheer around us, shallow though it may be.
We needn’t go to Juarez to find people grieving from the loss of a loved one, or the pain of broken relationships. We needn’t even leave our county to find people without homes; this morning’s report on VPR mentioned that local homeless shelters are overflowing and short on both space and voluntarily labor.
What strikes me about the season, though, is that in its historical roots it lends itself to contemplation of human suffering as well as joy. According to Christianity, the choice of God to be born as a human named Jesus, at a particular moment in history, the son of an unwed teenager named Mary, was a choice to enter into a world full of pain and sorrow. It was a choice to enter into the suffering of humanity.
The story tells us that Jesus was born to an essentially homeless family, taking shelter with animals in a barn. Even the shepherds who came to visit the newborn baby, and are now glorified in so many Christmas carols, were societal outcasts, poor and with no public standing or privilege. It was also a time of great grief, when Israel was under oppressive captivity to Rome. And then, as if this situation wasn’t bad enough, within a short time every family in the land would know intense grief when all of the newborn children were executed. (Jesus’ family escaped to Egypt.)
So those who are truly suffering, whether from grief or sickness or poverty, have far more in common with the Jesus of the Christmas story than do those of us who are well off, whose lives are more-or-less defined by comfort and plenty, who have food and money and houses and lots of reasons for happiness and holiday cheer.
But here is the amazing thing of the story. In one important way, Jesus was like the duck hunter: He was choosing suffering. His entry into the human world of pain and sorrow was an entry by his own choice. Or maybe he was more like volunteers working at a homeless shelter, who in some way take that suffering upon themselves. (Or, rather, they are like him.)
Unlike duck hunters, however, Jesus did not go home to his warm comfortable home after a morning in the cold water. His choice was long term. Not a weekend winter campout. Not even a couple months hiking the Appalachian Trail with high-tech gear. Rather, a lifetime of knowing the utter depths of human sorrow. That’s the Christmas story as much as the Easter story.
And that is also why, ultimately, Christmas is a season for joy. Time and again in his life, Christianity teaches us that Jesus would point out that he came for the poor, the weak, the lost, the suffering, the sorrowful. He came that the meek would be blessed, and that those who mourn would be comforted. So when those in this world who are enduring the most can understand that Christmas was done for them, as a voluntary act of both love and suffering, and a means to redeem what they have endured, it means something. Something beyond words. So Jesus also had his reason to choose suffering. The reason was love.