The Ancient One: Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all.
Dr. Stephen Strange: Which is?
The Ancient One: It’s not about you.
We recently went to go see Dr. Strange. What a wonderfully philosophical movie. It appealed to the warrior priest in my soul. This time of year always seems to bring out the best and worst in people. It seems to bring out the best and worst in me. Perhaps it brings out the best and worst in me because it is what I see in other people. I don’t know. I do know that I get angry at people and I see worse drivers and feel people’s frustrations…which are possibly just all mine. Sometimes, a peppermint mocha and my bedroom and a book are where I want to spend the entire Winter. I don’t think this is uncommon. I think many of my friends feel this way. I am tired from a long year – a long, ugly, mean, nasty, tiring, year. Thank you, John Oliver (Explicit!), for saying it best. I want to have hope in a better 2017…but I fear it’s still going to be hard…and maybe in the end, suck. Yet, it doesn’t stop me from trying…does it?
Tonight it is 10 degrees outside, and a light dusting of snow creates these crazy little snakes on the asphalt. It’s hard to see them when your eyes are watering. Maybe that is why the attitudes are so intense; fighting a chilly inner core can bring out the grumpiness in people. And yet… and yet…. I sat this afternoon with a man who was there to give me a quote on fixing the ice-maker in the fridge. He was a very pleasant, efficient man, direct, clear, professional. As I wrote him the check for the service call, he told me a Christmas story about his father.
Every Christmas during his childhood, his father seemed to have to work on Christmas. He had siblings, and he never told me if he was the oldest or the youngest, but he seemed to be one of the eldest children. Even though his father was gone, deployed nearly every Christmas Eve, Santa Claus would show up at their house, talk to them about how good they had been, or bad, what they had done during the year, knew his parents, and told them stories. At the end, he would give them all an apple and tell them to go to bed so he could finish trimming the tree and leave their gifts. They all complied, of course, being military children and doing their duty. His father never went to Christmas Parties – he just always worked.
As the years went on, no matter where they moved – Japan, Massachusetts, Colorado Springs – Santa Claus always showed up and always gave them an apple. One year, when he was older, he got up after going to bed and went to get a drink of water. Outside the kitchen window, he saw Santa leaving, and as he walked by, he took off his red hat, and Santa’s wig came off with it. Walking away from him was his father, getting into the car. The son never said anything, to his siblings, to his mother – not a word. The next day, his father knew he hadn’t said anything because no one talked about it. It seemed to be a secret they would share.
Eventually, his father told him about his Christmas Eve journey in the neighborhoods and military bases, about visiting with people, literally hundreds of people, dozens of families, every Christmas Eve, as Santa. The repair man told me that as a child, he understood and he felt the secret was important, so he kept it.
A few years later, his father suffered a heart attack, actually three of them, a few months before Christmas. His doctor told him what he did every Christmas Eve and the doctor told him that if he carried that many apples around in the cold, he would die. Being a military man, a Lt. Colonel, he was stubborn and told the doctor that he was going to do the work he intended to do. His doctor told him no. They went back and forth and finally, the man’s father enlisted his son to assist. The 17 year old didn’t want to go, he wanted to spend it with his girlfriend. His father told him he could bring his girlfriend with him, driving him around from place to place, toting apples – two cases of apples. They went to dozens of houses and at each house, his father knew the parents, the children, their names, what they had done during the year, when they had been naughty or nice. He knew, flawlessly, which houses had the youngest children and had to be visited first, before they went to sleep. He knew where each person lived and what was up next for them in their lives. He did this without notes, without checking or looking up anything – this was well before Google. His son, this repair man, said his father had an amazing mind, and it was used to perform this huge feat, every year, without fail, for over 30 years. The families he visited were sometimes taken by surprise with his visits, others planned it, and still others were stunned. The repair man told me that he saw smiles and laughter where ever his father went, and it taught him a lot about his father and humanity. It taught him about giving back, about pride of doing what you love in service to others, and about his father’s character.
His father died shortly after having the heart attacks, and that was some decades ago. I thought about my own childhood and the simple pleasures of laughter and smiles, and the magic that some adults feel with the holidays. My own father has lights and mechanical displays in his yard every year, planned out months in advance, with music and color. He doesn’t do it for his own enjoyment but to bring a smile to children’s faces as they drive or walk by. I think, sometimes, we don’t see these stories brought to life often enough, and we get mired in the muddy joylessness of “have to” for the season. I don’t want to regret future years going by without the laughter. I never want to humbug. The man’s story reminded me that I don’t have to – unless I choose it. My wish list this year contains laughter. Send me a laugh and make me smile, and maybe I can do the same for you. This is a season for connection and family and love – a greater whole of community and support to get us through the dark times. It’s not about you. It’s about us. All of us.