Friday, December 30, 2011

Remembering the simplicity and gentleness of our childhood Christmases (Reflections on the week of Christmas, 2011)

“Ano ang gusto mong maging, paglaki mo?” (“What would you like to be when you grow up?”) Didn’t we use to ask each other that question when we were kids? And weren’t we ourselves asked that question by adults or other children?

This past week, I had the opportunity to talk to a gentleman who was seeking counsel about the direction of his life. (I did ask his permission to share the point of our conversation, albeit in a very general way, so that others might benefit from his story.)

“My life has all but unraveled, father”, were his first words. “I don’t know what to do anymore. It seems my life is spinning out of control. I’m not a bad person, and I’ve always tried to do my best, but my life seems to have just lost all focus and direction.”

He then proceeded to share the many challenges and problems he was facing, many of which were of his own making. “I really don’t know what happened to my life. I think I just woke up last week and realized I’m in my mid-40’s and my life’s been slipping away. And I can’t seem to know what to do about it”.

There’s a line in a song that goes: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”. We do tend, on numerous occasions, to lose focus. We busy ourselves with a thousand and one peripheral things, in the process of which we fail to realize we’re losing sight of the few really important and essential ones. Our lives become more and more complex, more and more complicated, and then one day, suddenly, we wake up and realize, we’ve gotten older. But what has happened to our years? What happened to our original goals, visions, and dreams? Did we fall asleep and then just suddenly wake up?

Something that gentleman said during our conversation left me with something to seriously think about all throughout this past Christmas week: “I miss my childhood Christmases; they were far more simple then. You know, I miss my childhood. Life was much more simple”.

He then began to tell me of how his family would go to midnight Mass on Christmas, exchange gifts before sitting down for their Christmas meal. The kids all got simple toys from their parents, and they in turn would get their parents something simple they’d save for with their lunch money. The following day it was visits to their grandparents, uncles, aunts, and godparents. “Life was so simple then. Even as I was growing up, it was simple. Now it’s out of control,” he kept repeating. I noticed he was crying while he told me of his childhood Christmases.

When he was done. I said to him, “You know what, I believe it’s the same for all of us. We look back to those days and remember how simple, gentle, and good life was, even if our families weren’t perfect. But we all know, there’s no going back. Life just gets more complicated as we get older; and sometimes, we do feel like things have gotten out of hand, and we’ve lost a great deal of control. And we long to go back, turn back the hands of time, wipe the slate clean, and if only we could, start over.”

Don’t we all, from time to time, find ourselves saying these things, looking back to our childhood and wishing we could return to a simpler and gentler age? When we were still full of hopes and dreams, and they seemed very easy to achieve, when we used to ask one another and be asked: “Ano ang gusto mong maging pag-laki mo?” (“What would you like to be when you grow up?”) - To which we could give any answer we wanted. It isn’t something we’re asked anymore as adults. Nor is it something to which we could now give any answer we want.

Just a few weeks ago, one of my former students was asking me what I would’ve been had I not chosen to become a priest. “A doctor, that’s for sure; or a lawyer or architect. Those were my choices.” “That’s it?” the kid said, and then followed it up with another question, “Was there anything else you wanted to become?” “Yup. I wanted to be a fireman!”

Our lives may not have become as complicated and problematic as that of the gentleman who sought my advice, but we all from time to time feel like we’re slowly losing sight of those things we’ve valued and held dear for as long as we could remember, and we long for a time when life was more simple.

With all the ‘craziness’ and ‘busyness’ that we adults put into preparing for its celebration (“When its is over, I can finally breathe”, was how a friend of mine put it.), the Christmas Season could in fact provide us with the opportunity to stop and consider how complex our lives may have become and whether or not it is still possible to recover even a bit of that gentleness and simplicity of our childhood.

I am not suggesting that we try to recover all of it; there’s no turning back time. But that doesn’t mean that we have to allow our life to just slip out of our hands and allow it to become more and more complicated until we eventually wake up one day and discover that life is controlling us rather than we ourselves directing our own lives.

Perhaps that’s why Christmas always strikes a chord in the hearts of many, but it’s also why it’s most meaningful for children. When we look at them, we remember, not so much our Christmases past, but the simplicity of our childhood years. Sadly, as adults, we too easily dismiss those feelings, thinking they’re nothing more than sentiment and nostalgia. And then we get back to our daily routine, the daily grind, we pinch ourselves or slap ourselves back to what we believe is “reality”.

But while it’s true that there is no turning back, while it’s true that an adult must live in an adult world, it is always possible to leave a space, deep inside us, where the simplicity and gentleness of our childhood will forever remain fresh and alive, waiting for us to return to it at moments of turmoil, stress, anxiety, fear, worry, and especially at those times when we feel that our life is beginning to unravel in its complexity.

We’ve all heard that line, “Christmas is in the heart”; so is simplicity, and so is our childhood – when all was still fresh, when all was still new, when all was still hopeful, when life was still a wide-open door.

This Christmas Season, may the Son of God, born of simple parents, in a simple manger, visited by simple shepherds, awaken in each one of us the desire to keep our childhood Christmases forever alive in our hearts, by keeping that space deep inside us, where life will always be simple, where we shall always be filled with joy, and hope, and that eagerness (perhaps even giddiness) with which children greet the morning of Christmas day.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)