Some posts are liable to divide opinion – this post may well be one of them. Not because I’m going to discuss the merits of Marmite, not because I’m about to express a political opinion, not even because I’m on the verge of venturing a view as to whether GPs should cap the number of patients they see on any individual day. No, far more contentious than any of these things, this post is about Christmas.
Well the wait is almost over, with the last doors now being opened on a million ‘Sleeps ‘till Santa’ calendars. The choice this year has been huge. Believe it or not, today you could be opening the final drawer or pulling back the last cardboard square to reveal nail varnish, Play-doh, or the remaining component required to finish building an FM radio. My favourite though has to be the ‘Drinks by the Dram’ Calendar, sold on Amazon for a shilling short of £1000. Who wouldn’t want to start the day with a 60 year old Glenfarclas to accompany their Coco Pops? But don’t worry if you’re a traditionalist, there have still been plenty of calendars out there that retain the true meaning of the holiday season and counting down the days with chocolate impressions of characters from Star Wars has also been an option this year. There’s no doubt about it, it’s beginning to look a lot like Winterval.
As the year draws to an end it’s inevitable perhaps that one looks back at what that year has brought. And if one thing is certain it’s that it’s not just been me, my friends and my patients who have known sadness and difficulty these past twelve months – it’s also been your patients, those you work alongside and, almost certainly, to some degree or another, you yourself. And as Christmas approaches for many the suffering still continues. Even so, irrespective of whether or not it’s a bad time for you right now, I’d still like to take a moment and wish you a very Merry Christmas.
When life is characterised by sorrow and despair, the forced jollity of Christmas is, however, frequently unwelcome – few of us are up for a party in such circumstances, regardless of how many amusing Christmas jumpers are on display. As a result, it has been suggested by some that we should no longer wish others a ‘Merry Christmas’ since to do so risks being insensitive to those who are experiencing difficult times. But to suggest as much is to misunderstand Christmas, to think of it as nothing more than an excuse for overindulgence as we try to deny the vicissitudes of life. One of my favourite carols is ‘God rest ye merry, gentleman’ – note the position of the comma. For many years I misunderstood this carol, imagining that the words were expressing the hope that God would give a bunch of already merry gentlemen a well earned rest! This, though, is not the point at all – as the position of the comma makes clear. Whilst rest fir many of us would undoubtedly be very welcome just now, what is being hoped for here is not that God would organise a couple of days off for these men of gentle disposition but, as yet, undisclosed happiness. Rather the hope is that, no matter how happy the aforementioned chaps currently are, God would render them merry.
Whether you are a person of faith or not, and regardless of what that faith might look like, my wish for you is that you will rest merry this Christmas, that you will know some happiness this coming week, even if it has to be experienced alongside tears of enduring sadness.
This though will not be easy. For many Christmas is just too busy to be enjoyable. Even without the current prevalence of winter illnesses which are making our on call days busier than I can recall them ever having been before, at Christmas there is just too much that has to be done. Some of us, perhaps, long for the Christmases of our childhood, fondly remembered as magical times when we believed in a red suited figure who insisted on bestowing upon us one kindness after another without us having to do anything whatsoever to deserve it. Now though, as adults, we have lost sight of any transcendence that Christmas once held and, rather than resting in the generosity of one greater than ourselves, find ourselves burdened with a list of a thousand things we must do if we are to be deemed acceptable celebrants of what a consumerist society has made of Christmas. Wouldn’t it be lovely though if we could experience Christmas, indeed experience life as a whole, as we did when we were little, with that childlike faith that someone other than ourselves would be kind to us and see to it that everything turned out just fine in the end.
Perhaps, to you, that sounds like heaven, something that is simply too good to be true, especially at the end of a year in which so much has been wrong with the world. This year, in addition to the current turmoil within the NHS, there has been war in Eastern Europe, numerous natural disasters, and too many headline grabbing tragedies. And it’s not only been nationally or globally that things have been difficult. Closer to home, with the economic downturn and the relentless breakdown of public services, we have all looked on as many of our patients have suffered and not a few have died. Add to all of this our own difficulties and one can understand why some see any prospect of merriment this Christmas as nothing other than an impossible dream.
There will be those of us who, over the next few days, will try to shut our eyes to the reality of suffering, endeavouring as we do so to hold on to the lie that it couldn’t happen to us – until, of course, it does. And for those of us who do acknowledge that life for many is tough, do we at Christmas simply pay lip service to how dreadful it all is before pushing it to the back of our minds and continuing on our merry way – unchanged, unmoved, unaffected. After all, we might think, what’s suffering got to do with Christmas?
And therein lies the problem with Christmas, or rather the problem with the Christmas that we have created. As with life, we struggle to conceive that the realities of hate, pain and suffering sit alongside those of love, joy and peace, that these things, to a greater or lesser extent, are present in all our lives, present indeed, even in ourselves. We have marginalised the horror of the Christmas story, preferring the sanitised version that fits better with our forever optimistic outlook on life and our overly positive view of who we really are. But, though we might say ‘It’s all good’, the reality is it not – the truth is that we live in a world of both good and evil.
Life can be filled with overwhelming joy.
But life can also be hard. Often, very hard. For some, impossibly hard.
And for many the sadness is just too much.
Regardless of whether or not you are somebody who believes the Christmas story, the biblical account does at least reflect the reality that life is a mix of the good and the bad. The joy of the birth of Jesus, and the hope that his arrival brought, is mixed with the abject poverty into which he was born, the rejection experienced by his parents and the murder of the innocents at the hands of Herod. And what began in ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ continued on to ‘a green hill far away’ where the baby whose birth we celebrate at Christmas suffered as a grown man the horrors of crucifixion. The Roman orator Cicero described crucifixion as ‘a most cruel and disgusting punishment’ and suggested that ‘the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.’ That is the world we live in, joy and sadness, pleasure and pain – we cannot have one without the other. Indeed, for me at least, the two are inextricably linked with the existence of suffering being the reason why we need a redeemer, one who, through the suffering he himself endured, ensures that the suffering that we all still experience will one day come to an end.
‘Sorrowful yet always rejoicing’. These are words, written by the apostle Paul, that I find helpful to reflect upon. We cannot expect to live trouble free lives. Hardships and calamities will befall us all and when they do they will bring with them great sorrow. Yet despite those hardships, despite the all too awful suffering, there is, I believe, still hope in Christ. And it is because of that sure and certain hope that there is still a reason for rejoicing this Christmas. Leonard Cohen said it well:
‘There’s a lover in the story but the story’s still the same
There’s a lullaby for suffering and a paradox to blame
But it’s written in the scriptures, and it’s not some idle claim’
We live in the tension of ‘the already and the not yet’. For those who believe these things, Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, and the redemption that he thereby achieved, has secured the future – a future so certain that we can count on it as if it were ‘already’ here. We can live rejoicing in the confidence of its inevitability whilst, at the same time, honestly acknowledging that it is still ‘not yet’. We, and our patients, live in the very real pain of today, the heart breaking awfulness of now. Even as we rejoice in the joy of Christmas, and the hope that, because of it, still remains, we dare not tell ourselves differently. To do so is to delude ourselves, and ensure disillusionment and despair when eventually the truth can no longer be denied. Joy then, is not the absence of sadness any more than sadness is the absence of joy. Just as we must not imagine that we can not be happy when we have things to be sad about, we must not think we cannot be sad because there are things that make us happy. A paradox it may be, but we really can be happy and sad at the same time.
Some years ago, at our daily get together over coffee, I announced to my partners how I was rather enjoying Justin Bieber’s Christmas album. There followed an embarrassed silence, one that I did not fully understand until that evening, when I finally realised my mistake. I had confused my Justin Bieber’s with my Michael Bublé’s! That was an embarrassing Christmas mistake, one that I was quick to put right the very next morning! But it is not as big a mistake as the one that some might think I’m making here. Some may be asking what place do matters of faith have on an online forum encouraging GPs to be strong. For me, the answer to that is simple and lies in the the fact that, in and of myself, ‘strong’ is exactly what I’m not. Not infrequently the job is beyond me. The demand is too great, the need is too vast, and the expectation is too much. Furthermore, rather than always being hard done by as a consequence of the actions of others, too often it is me who is the problem, it is my actions that burden others with the additional work I create.
Of course I endeavour to carry on, to do my very best, but my faith brings with it the realisation that, when I’m overwhelmed it’s not all down to me. It gives me the encouragement I need to keep on keeping on in the face of ongoing difficulty, and reminds me that hardships aren’t some kind of anomaly, on the contrary they really are to be expected. And when life itself is just too sad, it is my faith gives me the assurance that even as we suffer and are sorrowful we can still hope and rejoice in the better future that I believe is surely coming, one in which every tear will be wiped away. If then I have any resilience at all, it is my faith that lies behind it. Furthermore it gives me something to sometimes offer my patients when it’s not just me who’s reached the limit of what I can offer, when it’s all too clear that medicine has reached its limit too.
So I’m going to embarrass myself some more by saying that I really do believe the message that those angels brought to the shepherds that first Christmas night. So often at this time of the year I hear that ‘Christmas is for the children’ and yet, as the angels said, the birth of a Saviour is good news ‘for all the people’, even for those of us who are worn out and exhausted from having worked all year in general practice. Indeed it is, perhaps, when life is at its hardest, when sadness and suffering are all around, that our need for Christmas and the hope it brings is most obvious. Because Christmas really can cheer the broken-hearted, and rest merry even the most downcast.
I said this post may divide opinion and so it might. But if it has and you feel that what is written here is not for you, please know that it is nonetheless sincerely offered with the intention that it might provide a little encouragement and hope to at least some who have known what it is have struggled this year. It is, after all, Christmas. But irrespective of whether you have found it helpful or simply consider me to be a naive fool, whether you share my faith or follow another, my hope for you remains the same, that this year, no matter what your current circumstances may be, yours will be a very Merry Christmas.
Now, where’s today’s shot of Pappy Van Winkle’s 23 Year Old Family Reserve.
Other medically related Christmas themed blogs:
To read ‘The Scrooge Chronicles’, click here
To read ‘How the Grinch and Covid stole General Practices Christmas’, click here
To read ‘Twas the NHS week before Christmas – 2022’, click here
To read ‘Paddington and the ailing elderly relative’, click here
To read ‘Working in a Healthcare Hinterland’, click here
Other specifically Christian posts
To read ‘Rest Assured’, click here
To read ‘Good Friday 2022’, click here
To read “Easter Sunday – 2021”, click here
To read ‘I’ll miss this when I’m gone’, click here
To read “Hope comes from believing the promises of God”, click here
To read, ‘But this I know’, click here
To read “Suffering- A Personal View”, click here.
To read “Why do bad things happen to good people – a tentative suggestion”, click here
To read “Luther and the global pandemic – on becoming a theologian of the cross”, click here
To read ‘Covid -19. Does it suggest we really did have the experience but miss the meaning?’, click here. This is a slightly adapted version of “T.S. Eliot, Jesus and the Paradox of the Christian Life’.
To read ‘The “Already” and the “Not Yet”’, click here
To read ‘On being confronted by the law’, click here
To read ‘Real Power’, click here
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