There are going to be a lot of family firsts this year, most of them foisted on us, or chosen by us for the newest “reason for the season” ; the reason being The 2020 Worldwide Pandemic. I was lying in bed this morning at 3:30 a.m. deciding whether or not to get up AGAIN! to let-out the old senile barking -for -no- reason Daisy the Dog and then wondering afterwards whether I should just stay up or try to fall back to sleep before starting my at-home temp job answering phones and taking payments for grumbling scared people (who just don’t have quite enough this year to make those payments but if they don’t they lose their job but I usually end up after we hang up feeling that at least they reached me and I am a good listener and empathizer so there’s that, so….) since I can rarely fall back asleep after rising any time after about 3:00 am, I decided — well, here I am, aren’t I?
As the coffee gurgled, and the old dog ate her third treat, one from the TJ’s Advent Calendar for dogs that I bought this year, I started thinking about how many things were going to be different for me and for my family specifically this year. Starting with the dog. This is the first year Daisy will not have her evil step-sister, Jolie, the Golden-Coyote, to fight over Christmas stocking treats with. We helped Jolie across that Rainbow Bridge this past June and it was a sorrowful time. We miss that crazy coyote so much. (And yes, we did a DNA test if you can believe we would spend that kind of money on it and she is indeed, as we always knew half “Wolf, Coyote, CanFam”. Jolie was a street dog we rescued from the pound and she never got the “wild” completely out but we loved her almost as fiercely as she loved us, so….). Our first Christmas in fifteen years without Jolie, will be a couple of big black chalk marks on the negative side of life’s score sheet for all of us. On the plus side, we don’t have piles of shedded hair to clean up daily, a terrorized mailman, the hard times of watching Jolie be in pain, and Daisy gets to keep all her treats without getting beat up and bit, so…. Pros and cons but man, do I miss that crazy old coyote-dog.
So I started making a mental list, as any good mixed breed mongrel (I am part Native American, Scottish, Irish, German, English, and Godonlyknowswhat pronoun-ed she/her.. And no, I haven’t done a DNA test because my husband’s greatest nightmare is for him to be falsely imprisoned and somehow he fears that if my DNA is on record, he will somehow be arrested for something he didn’t do, and no we are not first cousins and yes he is a scientist, so go figure, but anyway…..) Here are some other firsts I thought of at about 4:00 am while the coffee perked and Daisy farted (another sad thing about old dogs is they really have a lot of gas and it smells like the worst meat packing factory you could possibly imagine spewing fumes constantly in your very own living room but The Guys at my house swear that Daisy’s farts actually smell likewhat- ever we ate for lunch or dinner that day, and they are scientists, you know so I have to accept that as fact, and I feel for my sake and Daisy’s that from now on I will only eat rose petals or lavender bud so Daisy’s farts will smell like that, according to “The Guys”, so….). And so it goes, and so here is a short list I made this morning while the rest of the world slept-on, with pleasant memories and dreams of Jupiter and Saturn kissing (See!? A year of firsts!)
Firsts of 2020 Christmas
(which I hope mostly not to repeat except for maybe a few of them but mostly no, so…..)
We did not buy a Christmas tree this year. With a pandemic on, there were very few places to buy a tree and my adult kids were unavailable to go along and play “Who Picks the Tree we Buy this Year? Race”. Raoul and I went to Home Depot just the two of us, and he was fairly excited, knowing he would win this year, but when we saw the prices for the scraggly little Charlie Brown trees and the even bigger prices for the decent looking trees, we both balked. We thought about it for a few days and decided this year we would not get a tree. (Sad, but on the plus side, I am working down to the wire this year, and even though I am working from home, I don’t have the motivation or really the time to decorate the tree all by myself and pretend the rest of the family helped me because I make whomever is around put a few ornaments on so we can pretend everyone helped and I dread having to undecorate it all by myself, and that’s a positive, so….). But we love the lights and the smell of real tree. So I strung a bunch of lights inside on our windows and bought some pine and balsam scented candles –and Bob’s your Uncle! Win-win. And on the super duper plus side – Raoul and I decided that money we would have spent on a Christmas tree? – we will give the money to a charity like The Bail Project or Feeding America. For Pete’s sake, I said to myself when I felt a bit teary over no Christmas tree in my home for the first time in over 35 years, “Jane, Old Girl, there are people starving in, well, in your own backyard today and people who are in prison at Christmas time because they can’t afford bail, I think you can go without a Christmas tree this year, right girlfriend?”
And then I remember the year we got a call from Raoul’s dad that his mom was worse, and we had to literally toss our Christmas tree out on the stoop so it wouldn’t die inside our house and maybe catch the house on fire (okay, so not too rational in our frightened worry and while gathering up our two kids with another one on the way, quickly packing clothes and dashing to the airport) and we left a message for our neighborhood teen, Robin, who used to baby sit our kids, to ask if she could sometime come over and take all the decorations off the stoop Christmas tree for us because we were rushing across the country to see Raoul’s mom who had suddenly had a very bad turn from the cancer and so then, twenty-five years later — I remember what family is all about and how much I miss those who have gone on before us and how very much and how very many people will be missing loved ones for the first time this pandemic season, and well, not having a dead tree in my living room is small sacrifice to pay if instead this year I instead put some live people ahead of my traditions. Because while I love traditions, I hope, when asked, to love people more.
2. Our family of six will not all be together this Christmas. This is the big cry, the big waaa-waaaa for me and for my husband. Our eldest is stuck in North Carolina, a gazillion miles away during a no-travel pandemic. We have not seen Justine for over a year, having to cancel our plans to go there last spring and her plans to come here this summer, even for her big birthday event this past June. And while this makes me super-duper sad, I am so very, very grateful that all six Tawels are still alive. We have survived a year of a pandemic. And we all have jobs, and more than enough food to eat, and roofs over our heads, and no one is being conscripted into a war, and we aren’t being hunted down and persecuted, and as long as we wear masks we can walk our streets safely, even at night. So, to keep the world a little safer and my own family a little safer, not traveling, not gathering is a small price to pay, isn’t it? And when you think about the prices so many have paid and are still paying in this life to keep their own families safe, who am I to complain?
To be alive and able to say to Justine and all of us – “we will wait, and we will hope”, that is a wonderful spiritual gift when I think about it. That is the idea that Christmas is actually supposed to be about, not getting, not even giving, but “waiting and hoping”. Too many people have to live lifetimes with nothing but waiting and hoping to keep them going. For me to do it now in 2020 is a time to engage in more reflection, more empathy, and more “owning” of what being fully human in community with all humanity should be like – and isn’t that the message of the Christ baby who came to be human with all of humanity? Isn’t that what the God of the People of Jesus kept telling them: “Remember. Wait. And Hope.”
3. The rest of my list of firsts pales in comparison after the biggie of missing a family member, but here goes:
We will not share a fondue this year on Christmas eve (leaning over a communal pot with sticks is not advised I imagine, by Dr. Fauci and his ilk. Besides my daughter Verity who is our family’s Pandemic Health Czar has forbidden it, which is another positive thing about changes because your adult children sort of gradually take over bossing each other and their parents around and maybe they will forget all the bossy things you pulled on them as a parent when they were young, so….). And we will read our favorite Christmas stories wearing our pandemic masks (“The Nativity” with illustrations by Julie Vivas, “Wombat Divine” by Mem Fox, and this year, we will definitely add the classic version, not the movie version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” because he really almost did this year for a lot of us, so….). We will gather with just our little family and sadly not be able to invite our various friends and “spares and strays” that we love to include in our feasts and our lives. We will wear masks when we talk and when we play Christmas trivia and Christmas bingo. We won’t snuggle except in our individual house pods as we watch Christmas classic movies and later I will sanitize all blankets used. We won’t pile into the car to go see Christmas lights, but we may take a walk around the ‘hood to see the lights.
And so, it will go, like a lot of things this past Pandemic Year of 2020, this Christmas Season, a lot of things will change; there will be a lot of firsts I didn’t plan on. They aren’t the fun exciting firsts of a new car or a new house or a new baby or a new citizenship. But if I can change my perspective, I can maybe shift my worldview into something more truly True and more worth leaning into and living out.
A lot of families will have much, much harder and more sorrowful firsts to lean into this year than we will. Far too many will have the loss of jobs and income, the loss of a place to live, the loss of the hope of gaining citizenship, the loss of a town and a place one grew up in, the loss of a place to worship, the loss of one’s health, or the loss of a loved one. So, I tried to make my list of “Firsts in a Year of Pandemic Christmas” seem as inconsequential and small as they are in comparison, and add a little bit of “Jane-humor” besides. Because in the scope of things, my own year’s changes, both foisted and chosen, are rather small when I compare them to how very, very, very much others have suffered and suffer, and how very, very much I have had my whole life and continue to have even in these strange and mind-bending, heart-rending times.
And just one more thing – when I think about a season of firsts this year, I realize that is what Christmas and the Coming of Jesus, the Messiah of God is all about. It was a first for Jesus, a first for his World Parent, Adonai. It was a first for human beings and a first for angels and the devils alike. Jesus came and for the first time the Son of God was without a Parent, without a home, without power, without a healthy environment, without resources, and without any security for future survival. Remember, the “first Noel” was to “certain poor shepherds who slept rough in the fields.” And even in all those “firsts”, he brought hope. He brought joy. He believed that “the first would be last and the last first” in a new Kingdom of Humans centered around the Divine Love that humans were meant to live out. The Christmas Child grew into a human being and brought a new way of looking at life and a new way of living this life. When Jesus first became a human, he became one of us; and he lived and suffered among us, and he laughed with us and celebrated with us and he wept with us and he loved us.
I hope that is what 2020 Pandemic Christmas can teach me, and maybe enough of us to make a different world. I hope we can learn first, how to be more fully and divinely human; how to first, love more with less; how to first, care more for others than for myself; and how to not just be more grateful but to be more responsible and more worthy.
The Message of This Season is Change; but The Story is Open-Ended
By Jane Tawel
December 15, 2020
The Year 2020 has been the most remarkable paradox of stagnancy and change. This is true on a global scale, (due to what it’s always due to, which is that old theme of Good vs. Evil); but it has been brought home to us as individuals on a vastly more knowable and just plain bigger-impact scale. Health, Wealth, Stealth, The Poor and War — those are the things that have always effected nations, communities, and individuals. The Year 2020 decided to “go all out” on all of the above.
I have known people this past year who have raged against the dawn of big changes either foisted on them from outside or accumulated by a lifetime of choices. I have known those who stick their heads in the sand or pull them back into their shells like turtles, pretending none of it is happening. There are good friends who abhor change and decide that they don’t have to accept it but instead can recreate a past where changes were all in their favor and everyone like them went to bed happily, healthfully, and securely, singing out “Goodnight, John Boy! Goodnight Mama! Goodnight Moon!” And I have friends, who have been hit by the changes like a sudden bolt of lightning, suddenly understanding things in a very different light, a light that reveals the darkness for what it has always been and the great need for changes, both personally and systemically. Of course, at various times in the past year and throughout my life, I could check the box of being all of the above “sorts of person”. So Change in order to make a difference must be both reflected and mirrored back.
There are those in my own country and in countries around the world, who protest against change and those who protest for change. There are those who long for change, write songs about change, or work to prolong the winds of change. It seems that John F. Kennedy was partially right when he said, “There is nothing more certain and unchanging than change and uncertainty”. But there is also nothing more certain that when change and uncertainty combine on a world-wide scale, people will either rise to action or fall into inaction. Which brings me to what some call their “reason for this season” which is also called Christmas.
Christ-Mass is supposedly in celebration of the start of a story. It is a story that begins with the birth of and the earthly journey of the god-figure and ancient Hebrew man named Jesus, later called Messiah, or The Christ. The story told for a couple of thousand years now, has become rather stale and stagnant for many believers and non-believers alike. The same bath-robed small shepherds appear in Children’s Nativity Plays and the same people gather to see how to best combine Jolly Old St Nick and lots of overspending on Christmas gifts with the reality of the birth of a poor, minority, despised class of person of color religious minority human being who somehow revealed to humanity the nature of God. But this year of 2020, everything is slightly askew, isn’t it? And because of that, anyone who wants to celebrate the reality of Jesus should be rejoicing. Because if there is any one word that we should associate with the person of Jesus The Christ, it is Change.
From babe born in a sheep’s straw pile to convicted and state-sanctioned-murdered religious radical, Jesus was the personification of “Be the Change”. Change with a capital “C”. CHANGE writ large. Change that is painful, unnerving, invigorating, unexpected, programmatic, outstanding, surprising, awe-inspiring, terrifying! Change that is individually and systematically, outside, inside, upside-down Change. A Change that was meant to effect me; and that “e” in effect is not a typo, since the old usage of Effect is intended. The kind of Big World-View Change that Jesus represents is world-upending Causal and meant to Effect you, Effect that guy, that woman, that child; Effect that town, that family, that nation; that river and tree and rock and lion and bird; that friend and that enemy. Jesus was and is meant to be the Changing Causal Reality that was and is meant to Effect the whole World. In fact, when compared to Jesus The Christ, pandemics can look rather small change.
So how can people who claim the Name and espouse the Belief-System, be surprised when we “Christ-ians” are asked, required, forced or even blind-sided and run-over by Change. It is, after all, the Stunning Way of God- Change that the person of Jesus was meant to signify; a change that was meant to effect this town, that nation, this government, that education, that art, this science, that environment, and this whole world. It is The Change that was mean to effect and infect the user with Love and Hope. It is the earth-shaking, evil-shattering Change that is meant to Effect the walk in The Way of all who would claim to want to be changed by a knowledge of Jesus.
If Christ-Love and Christ-Life is the Cause, then surely we who call ourselves “little-Christs” are meant to embrace the Effects of Changed Lives lived-out boldly but humbly in an ever-Changing World.
Followers of Jesus were meant to be changed by unanticipated pandemics and by anticipated stumbling’s. We are meant to be changed by not just the knowledge, but by personal involvement with starving children, with immigrants and sojourners, by the plight of prisoners, and by the reality of long injustices. We are meant to care deeply and rise to the challenges needed to heal fetid waters and burning forests and dying ice-caps. We are called to believe that we can change our violent ways and turn guns into farm tools and eradicate wars and rumors of wars. We are meant to protest greed in our places of commerce, government, and worship as well as practice personal commitment to root out greed insidiously lurking in our own selfish ways. We are meant to abhor the lies of any Judas, whether friend or official. We are meant to give freely, love fiercely, and practice peace; and we are required to practice rest and restoration as is the intent in the meaning of Sabbath.
Followers of Jesus are also meant to be changed by the homeless person on their very own street corners. Followers of Jesus are meant to be changed by someone else’s pain, to mourn with all mourners, to grieve with others, and to be willing to give up everything to follow in the ways of The Son of Man, a homeless, family-less, in the end friendless radical Lover of the One Parent that Jesus himself sought to be shaped and changed by. This is what it means to see Change as ultimately not Against us, but For us. Change is For our good. Change is for making us Good. But it can only make us Good if we receive Change as Gift, not curse; as Life-affirming, not Freedom-stealing; as the Truth of what we are meant to be, not a threat to who we are. This is what it means to believe in our great ability to change into something / someone we haven’t yet imagined; some one amazing and miraculous and profoundly whole-ly Human. As one of Jesus’ early followers said, “Beloved, now we are children of God, and it is not yet revealed what we will be. We know that, when he is revealed, we will be like him; for we will see him just as he is”. (I John 3:2)
So here is a little story for this 2020 Year of Changes:
“In the fullness of Time”, Jehovah Jireh sent a Savior, The Begotten One, to bring change to a world stuck in the stagnancy of sin, sorrow, helplessness, hopelessness, brokenness, pain, and death. The Begotten One was born among the poor, uneducated, country-less, minority, despised of this world, to show the world where and how Change had to happen. He was educated by radicals living off the land in the desert; lived life away from his family and the comforts of work and home, and gathered a rag-tag bunch of students that he could teach the meaning of Life to. He was crazy-smart and very, very kind, miraculously so. He loved life and lived it with abandonment and joy de vivre. He showed people what humans were meant to be like and he lived to tell his stories and teach his disciples for a scant three years before the Religious / State Combo Powermongers of his day, used the inquisition of their time to convict him and the capital punishment of their day to murder him. But before that sad death came to be; something had already happened…..
Everything had changed.
Changed with a Capital C.
Because when Christ with a Capital C was around, “the blind received their sight and the lame walked, lepers were cleansed and the deaf heard, and even the dead were raised up, and the poor had good news preached to them.” (Matthew 11:4)
And once His life was “over”, Life had really and truly only just begun.
And in His Changed Life, New Life for All had just begun and was forever Changed.
Jesus lived so that we might be changed, “reborn”, reshaped, renewed, resurrected — because that is What he taught, that is What he lived, that is What he offered, that is What his life was. But the story of Jesus Christ really changed the world because that is Who he was and Who he is and Who he will one day be and Who we can become in him. The Christ asks only one simple thing of any one who wants to claim to follow him and worship His Father; Christ asks simply that we be willing to be completely and utterly Changed.
We who say we love Him, must be “formed into his likeness”. In the same way that in The Beginning, The Genesis, humans were formed “in the likeness of God”, we “second-wave humans” are to be “formed in the likeness of The Messiah, Yeshuah. We do this by becoming like him but more importantly by seeing him in everyone we meet and treating them like the King we claim Jesus is. Jesus says, “I can guarantee this truth: Whatever you did for one of my brothers or sisters, no matter how unimportant [they seemed], you did for me.” “Give up everything, come, follow and learn to Be Me. Be completely changed from who you are to Who I AM.”
When Saul / Paul of Ancient Tarsus got this part right, he was a man completely changed by his experience in understanding who Jesus was, what Jesus offered, and the extreme changes that Jesus required. The disciple John got this part right, and was able to not only seek to be changed in the here and now, but to imagine great change in the world through the radical realization in changed lives of those living in and leaning into The Kingdom of God and Christ. John received a dream, a revelation, a vision of reality that John recorded in the Revelation, and one that compares with the great dreams recorded by the forerunners of Jesus, the Jewish prophets Ezekiel and Daniel and Isaiah. The dreams of the prophets were that there would be a “new creation” on Planet Earth that would compare with that we can now only imagine to be in God’s Heavenly Places — a world changed into what it was all meant to be, a Kingdom where Love rules, Goodness reigns, and Peace, Joy, and New Life are internalized, externalized and actualized. Change will ultimately mean an Abundantly Healthy and Whole reality for All of us.
For All Good Teachers, All Messiahs, All Gurus, Rabbis, Preachers; All Saints and Prophets and Radical World-Changers, The Message has always been the same. The Message is — Change. But my story, your story, even the whole planet’s and World’s Story is open-ended. Because Change must be allowed into not just our halls of power or our own front doors, but into the deepest recesses of our hearts, our lives, our very souls. Change must be, if not welcomed and embraced, at the very least, given room, given a chance, given, if not a leading role, at least a small role to play in our stories. The role change plays in my life might be as large as a pandemic or as small as a virus. The change that changes me might be as sweeping as an army of Angels or as small as a baby in a manger. Change is always, however, one type of catalyst or another, throwing me back upon my stubborn insistence on self-centering, or leading me forward into a centered wholeness. The Story of Jesus is not told as history but as prophetic dream of mythological proportions. The Story of Jesus is the archetype of what real change can do in the human condition we all live and die in. And we are promised that all who seek, will find. And all who change, will be changed. “It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be changed. We will all be transformed” (I Corinthians 15:52).
The Story of Jesus, that we celebrate at Christmas, is the paradigm-shifting story of Embraced Change, of Worshipped Change. There are always people who fight that change, the Herods and Pilates, the religiously powerful, the nationalists and legalists, and even the common-place, normal friends and family members who reject change, who want to live in the past and stay in control, keep things as they were. But there are always the unexpected change-makers, too, and the amazing thing about this year 2020, is that we each have had the possibilities of real and radical change revealed to our imaginations as perhaps never before in our life-times. The revelations have not come without great pain, great fear, and much sorrow or depression, but if we look past the clouds, we can see Light, and if we keep the Darkness in perspective, we can walk forward with Hope. Like the trumpets of Angels or the brilliance of a previously unknown Star, Change has been born. And humble shepherds will listen to it, and Wise humans will seek it.
This is the message of The Year 2020: Change happens and each of us is Effected, one way or another. Am I going to fight Change, or let Change, change me into something better? To believe in the Cause of Christ, is to believe in the Effects of Radical Change. To believe in the World’s and my own ability to Change for Good, is to believe in the Power of Love. And the Power of Love is the most powerful force for Change in the Universe.
That is the Story of The Christ Child, the Story of Jesus. It can be the story of you and me as well.We just need to change the ending to be a new beginning.
Some days it is hard to keep hope alive. That’s the best time to look for the miracles — especially the small ones. Today we celebrate the miracle of unlikely provisions; the miracle of light in darkness; the miracle of hope for the helpless even in the face of evil abuses of power.
Be the Light.
Be the Hope.
Those who follow in The Way will always come out on the side of Good and live to celebrate salvation.
Some habits are hard to break and some habits are hard to make. In so much else that we have lost in terms of ethics and morality, I think we have lost the idea that there is a difference between a mistake and a sin. And consequently, we have lost this idea that good personal qualities are not a matter of hoping for them but of practicing them.
A sin is anything we know to be less than good or right and something that can hurt ourselves or another, and we do it anyway, purposefully or carelessly. There is also a difference between a feeling, a character trait, and a virtue. A virtue is something that we create, nurture, act upon, not out of whole-cloth, but out of that which every human being has the possibility of knowing and striving for. One of the most commonly known vices is gluttony, and yet while we may easily see it in others, we rarely see it in ourselves until after we’ve eaten the giant bag of Red Hot Doritos, swilled it down with a six-pack and we get the stomach-ache we deserve, at which point we still don’t see it as a sin against our body as much as a “mistake”. A common virtue is patience and yet we judge our boss or teacher for being impatient with our ignorance, while we attribute our own snapping and losing patience with the faults of the other person or just being “tired or hungry”.
We, at least in our Western world of privilege and ease, have mostly lost the idea that while we cannot control the feelings of an instant, we certainly can control the actions that come out of those feelings. But we can only do so, if we have practiced controlling and shaping and substituting bad actions for good actions. Much like working out with weights to increase one’s ability to perform at a sport, we must make the practice of good habits part of a daily routine (with time off for good behavior or Sabbaths or rest). And practicing to be good is important, much like practicing a sport or an instrument is important to be ready to sprint or perform when the moment of action arrives. You can’t hope you’ll win or flawlessly play, you have to have made habits that allow you to respond without thinking. Deciding to choose to live virtuously is a life-long commitment; much as professional musicians never stop practicing scales, we must see our lives as any artist would see her abilities to create. The glorious and divine thing about being human, is that it is never too late to start being creative with who we want to be. Today is another day in which I can see myself as the artist of my own life, worthy of practice in the virtues that make me the best creation I can be. If we focused on the idea that humans are truly creatures of habit, then we might understand the insidiousness of the habits we form for evil and the habits we form for good. Then we can understand the truly divine power we each have to break and make habits.
A bad action, whether it is over-indulging ourselves or gossiping about a neighbor, becomes what we might call a sin against self or sin against another, when we let an action become an un-examined habit. As an example, from my own life, over the past several years I have felt a responsibility to know about the evils and lies of our political leaders and to speak out against those things. However, lately, reading and thinking and worrying and angsting over those things has become a habit, something I cannot seem to stop doing, even with the hope of change around the corner, even as it has effected my peace, even as it has eaten up time that could be better spent in other pursuits. There has become something perversely pleasurable in wallowing in the doo-doo of others. This is ultimately not good for me, so when I keep indulging in it, I am sinning against myself. It is also however, not good for my brother or sister, when I keep beating my head against the wall of their stubborn stupidity or unethical choices to try to change or help them. I am a habitual “helper” but when you try to help someone who doesn’t want your help, it is a sin.
To break these bad habits, I have gotten myself into, I have to try to form different habits. So rather than beginning my morning with the various newspapers I subscribe to, I spend it reading spiritually invigorating books or by some time with silent meditation and prayer. I don’t turn on my computer. I find a space with a small lamp’s circle, a pencil for making notes, and a “teacher” whose written words energize my understanding and determination to make the world a better place and make the places in my own soul better as well. Getting outside and walking in the beauty of Nature is also good. Doing something anonymously for someone who is hungry, in prison, or lonely is also good. Practicing non-aggrandizing kindness, especially to those who make me mad or grumpy or who won’t appreciate it or praise me, is an excellent way to form a different habit of kindness and helpfulness. Actions that help me break habits that hurt me or hurt others are choosing to become ethics in action. Those actions become virtues when they become habits. Otherwise, they are too often “one offs”, reflective of how I feel, what I’m “in the mood for”, how much I care, or whether any one else is “looking”; and so they are not forces “at the ready” when I am “not feeling it”. Virtues are good habits that take over even when we do not will them to.
The other thing that for me is completely necessary is to truly return to an idea that I am not only not alone in the Universe, I am being watched. We have lost the idea of the “Constant Onlooker”. This may be because we think a belief system is enough to “save us” no matter how we behave for some future reality; but of course we should be humbly reminded that “even devils believe in God and Goodness and tremble”. It may be because we have never felt there is anything other than our molecules existing in a particular meaningless space and time with other molecules. But whether it is the foolishness of a morphed and broken religion or the sadness of an atheism, to have lost the idea that there is somehow something Divine that takes notice of us humans and our Earth, is a great tragedy and has much to do with how we have devolved to this place in time on our poor beleaguered planet and our insensitive, insensible, irrational, and sinful treatment of the planet and all creatures living on it.
Whether my Constant Onlooker is a God, or the Cosmos, or my Passed Relative, or the Angels, we have a great throbbing need to feel watched over with care. And when we think we are so very alone and that No One is watching, overseeing, caring, — yes — even judging or orchestrating us to live out a better way — when we choose to idolize the primacy of self-satisfaction and momentary feelings, of one-upmanship or passive/ aggressive complaining — then we truly choose to be alone in a Universe screaming for us to recognize that there is an Onlooker of human behavior, down to the very individual that you are and that I am.
It is often difficult to fight the depression that I feel when I feel that I do not matter, but there is another way. I can form the habit of worshipping That Who, that El Roi who sees me — ME — little old who I am but more importantly who I can BE — ME. To be seen is the first step away from breaking the habits of vice and towards making the habits of virtue.
Vice is about me, myself and I alone in the Universe. Virtue is about a Community of Reality in which I am not only not alone, but I am so important, so valued, so looked after, so much a part of The Whole, that my every singular thought and deed matters. While my individual mistakes and sins may not matter in the long run, the habits I form and whether they are formed for Good or for Evil, matter in a Grand Scheme of that which I can only glimpse and imagine.
To get started: This chart of Virtues and Vices is attributed to Aristotle. I could meditate on just the titles for hours.
We might look at these vices and virtues side by side with the words of that other great sage, St. Augustine, who among other things said, “I “Sin” / Err, therefore, I am”. To be human, to actually be the best human we can be, is to understand that we don’t just “goof up”, but we sin, and sin boldly and sin habitually. When we recognize that there is Someone, that some of us call “God”, who is creative and imaginative enough to give humans the ability to choose Life — life abundant and whole and free — then we recognize that same Being Who Loves us enough to perpetually create in and through us, is a SomeOne Who is watching over us, is looking out for us, is there and here for us, and is trying every which way to point to The Way — The Tao. There is Something in the Universe that cares about my every action; and rather than letting that be a heavy burden or a fear of judgement or a way for those in power to control me as organized religion and political powers have so often done and still do, I can allow that wisdom to free me from vice and habits of negativity that can ruin my life and the lives of others. Then I can open up my heart and soul, my body and mind, and my actions, deeds, and words to replace the negative habits with positive virtues and the good habits that will create new life in me and open up more room for love, both for myself and for others.
It is not enough to recognize the vices in others, even if we have worked hard not to allow those same vices in ourselves. The lack of a vice is simply a lack, a negative sum, not a positive one. I must of course look firmly at any habitual negative action or thought I have and try to pull it out by the roots and toss it in the dung heap. But I must also see any open spaces or blank lines in my ledger and replace the emptiness with virtue. It is not enough not to sin, but we must seize our responsibility for action and make it a habit; for as The Great Teacher said:
“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The theologians and the leaders in power — go ahead and do and observe whatever they tell you, but do not do the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They foist on others heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, churches, and halls of power; and they thrive on greetings in the marketplaces, news coverage, and being called important titles by others. But you are not to be called by important titles, for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters. And call no man your father/priest/leader on earth, for you have one Father/High Priest/Leader, who is in All the Universe, all the Heavenly Places. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (paraphrased slightly from Matthew 23)
I have lately retracted the finger I have had pointing towards others and tried to focus more on the four fingers pointing back at myself. Rather than being a negative experience, making me feel bad about myself, I find it energizing, comforting, and oh so very hopeful of all I can still accomplish and be within my very little own self. Much like when the weather changes and I can do some serious “Spring Cleaning”, I am ready to clean out some space in my heart, mind and soul, in order to make room for something better, cleaner, brighter, truer, and nobler; and to practice intentionally the greatest virtue of all — that of loving both self and others. And in this way, I long and desire to become more in tune and loving of The One Who Sees and Cares.
I know it is awfully old-fashioned of me, but to see the tendencies of making and breaking habits as something as eternally important as choosing vice or virtue, makes me feel much less alone in The Universe. The more I see my own sins and broken pieces, the more I hold out hope for Wholeness. The more I see the errors on my life’s page, the more I sense I am a part of a Great Story of Our Humanity, in which I play, if only a small and unknown character, a still quite valuable part. Like the character who is a catalyst in a novel, I hope to not understand but simply obey and do that which is my own ethical, virtuous-leaning part to play in The Story. Like tuning an old piano, I hope to change the dissonance of certain vices and make in-tune new habits of virtue. In this way, I do not play a solo performance, but am part of that great Orchestra lead by the Director of All Directors. Today, I shall practice creating more harmony in my own life, and humbly, prayerfully, hopefully in the lives of others, and I shall listen to and add to The Song.