Christmas and the holiday season can be paradoxical times; filled with the bright lights of celebration that cast deep shadows of sorrow. We both celebrate and mourn. Christians celebrate the birth of Christ but, along with most, they also mourn. There will be somebody who won’t be there for this holiday. There’s deep sadness in that.
I had lunch with a friend recently. His mother had died several weeks before. He’d been involved in the painful details one manages after a relative’s death, like dealing with insurance companies, bills that need closure, changing ownership rights, and the aggravating mechanics that burden our mourning. As we ate, he mentioned casually that this would be the first time in his life that his mother wouldn’t be there for Christmas. Normally gregarious and voluble, he grew more solemn and we spent much of our lunch in silence.
My wife and I attend church together. Just recently there we chores she needed doing at home so I went to church by myself. I was sitting where I could see a woman who’d recently lost her husband. For a moment I identified with her. The idea of being alone became more charged with emotion. It rattled me.
The power of a presence in our lives cannot be underestimated.
Large numbers of Shore residents are older. My church has an aging congregation. For elders the sense of mortality becomes more acute and losing a spouse or a long time friend is common.
Our preacher, Gregory Powell is a thoughtful and reflective man. That day in church without my wife, he talked openly from the pulpit about his own fears and struggles with loneliness. I found the sermon authentic and helpful. There’s something freeing and also comforting about someone who speaks openly the thoughts we harbor that frighten or depress us, the thoughts we won’t tell others.
To feel alone is excruciatingly painful, and I suspect that the ultimate sting of death isn’t just the dying process but to feel completely alone in it. Almost anything becomes endurable when we know someone’s there with us.
Several days ago, my wife and I drove to D.C. We went to get a Christmas present she promised me earlier in the year. It was a sport jacket, a pricey one. We went, bought the gift, and from there went to have lunch. On the way to lunch a short white woman in dungarees and an oversized coat approached us. I knew she was a street person. She walked toward us, and asked for change to get a bus. I had my hands in my pockets. I’d been kneading loose change that accrued in my left pocket. I pulled out the change almost without thinking. I gave it to her and told her that I hoped her day would be blest. I had mixed feelings; the awkwardness in confronting the boundary between privilege and poverty, feeling guilty but also wanting to lend as much dignity to this transient encounter as possible. I think I did the right thing. Not the change – but the intention I followed through with: I wanted to be sure to look her in the eye when I handed her the money so that she would know I wasn’t buying her off, but acknowledging her as a person. She looked in my eyes and said something about the change. It seemed gentle but I can’t remember exactly what she said because I was too anxious and unsure of myself to hear anything.
On the way home up Massachusetts Avenue, traffic was stop and go. During long stops, some indigent people walked between lines of cars with cups soliciting money. At one stop, traffic stalled. A black man, thin and gaunt, was coming up between the stalled cars saying things I could not hear. It was cold. He had an old rug liner draped over him like a cape. He limped. I had a thought I did not like; I wished the traffic would roll on so I would not have to decide whether or not to open the window and give him money. I did not want to see his abject poverty, be that close to his humiliation but perhaps more than anything not feel near that terrible loneliness that this city of global power hosts for so many of its residents. I wanted it all to go away.
It wouldn’t. The traffic didn’t move.
Several cars ahead I saw a driver give him something. They talked briefly. The man made his way toward my car but he looked ahead, as if daydreaming. I decided to open the window and offer him a dollar. Would he walk past me? I finally beeped the horn. He heard it, looked our way and came up and extended the cup. My wife Jo put the bill in it. He thanked us amiably and limped on.
The burden the unacknowledged stranger in our midst bears is his or her aloneness. Does a person ever inure him or herself to the loneliness? I don’t know. There’s a haunting piece of scripture that always runs through my mind when I approach that uncertain abyss that for me lies between privilege and poverty.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
A thought for the holidays.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.