--by Mike Murray
The Christmas season has always been special to me. When I was young, I waited impatiently for December 25th to arrive – and for presents to magically appear beneath a wonderfully decorated evergreen tree. The month-long run-up following Thanksgiving (a period of time that now elapses in the blink of an eye) back then seemed interminably long. When I was young, Santa seemed a slowpoke.
As I approached adulthood, I began to more fully understand the religious significance of the holiday that comprises one-half of the holiest of Christian celebrations (Easter being the other). With deeper awareness, however, came doubt. Doubt that any one religion represents absolute truth. Complete enlightenment, it occurred to me, is not the province of any one faith.
I came to appreciate the words of George Burns in the film Oh, God! Burns (as God) was asked to confirm that Christ was his son. I can’t recall his exact answer. But it went something like this: “Jesus was my son... Muhammad was my son... Buddha was my son...” His point, I think, was that whether you worship God, or Allah, or Brahman – or any other deity – the Supreme Being reveals himself (for lack of a better term) in a way that it is meaningful to you.
The cultural holiday that began for me as a secular one twice transformed itself – first into a religious observance, and then into a non-denominational, spiritual experience. In all of its incarnations, the Christmas season has remained my favorite.
I like the changes that it brings about in people. It might seem cliché, but people really do try to treat one another a little better. There is more concern than at any other time of the year for the poor, the sick, the desperate. Beginning with Thanksgiving Day (when folks take time to contemplate the many blessings in their lives) and continuing through the end of the calendar year, compassion and generosity are at their zenith. Amid the trials and tribulations that plague our own existences, we pause to consider – and to make better provision for – those worse off.
And so, for reasons cultural, spiritual, and even climatological (winter weather is my favorite) I today trace my progression through life by Christmas seasons. I count the ones that have past. And I speculate about the ones that remain – for me and for those who are precious to me.
In years past, I marked the milestones of my life in other ways. As a young boy, I anxiously counted the days between birthdays. As an adolescent, I first looked forward to “graduating” from elementary school and to becoming a teenager. I then began other countdowns: Sixteen was the magic number for qualifying for a probationary driver’s license, eighteen for buying “3.2” beer.
We had reduced-alcohol ale back then for those who were 18 – 20 years of age. I didn’t have to wait until my 21st birthday to purchase 7% beer, however, since I joined the Army at 19. On military bases, all soldiers – regardless of age – were deemed adult enough to consume alcohol in all its forms. (“Old enough to fight for your country, old enough to drink” went the thinking.)
It was while I was in the military that I learned the significance of becoming a “two-digit midget.” That designation indicated that 99 or fewer days remained until E.T.S. (Expiration of Term of Service). G.I.s became really “small” when they reached the one-digit stage. As did most other soldiers, I checked off days on a countdown calendar, eager to reach the conclusion of my obligation to Uncle Sam.
After that, I entered the civilian workforce. And I began to track my passage through each week in culturally customary ways. When I was lucky enough to work a Monday-Friday schedule, for example, I struggled first to reach Wednesday (“hump day”) – the halfway point – and then Saturday, the workweek’s conclusion.
I listened as older employees spoke of “get-ups.” As in, “I have only 50 get-ups left.” Meaning, of course, that only 50 work days remained until retirement. At five days per week, that amounted to 10 weeks. Two and a half months. And all of it spent in anxious anticipation.
Along the way I attended college and graduate school. And I joined my fellow students in coveting the completion of each class, each term, each year of study. I enjoyed much of the coursework, and I appreciated many of my teachers. Nevertheless, the desire to finish, to obtain “that piece of paper” (the diploma that was once referred to as a sheepskin) was overwhelming. I was compelled to complete, to graduate – to reach the finish line as quickly as possible.
Throughout my life, I’ve been in a hurry. It seems I’ve always felt the need to count down days, to endure something present in order to reach something future. I realize now that I’ve squandered much in the process.
I ruefully recall one evening decades ago, when someone who was then approximately the age that I am now suggested to those of us assembled that we turn off the TV set and “just talk” for a while. Most in the group were young adults. And we were engrossed in the mindless sitcom that blared from the “idiot box.”
Our elder was seeking to engage us in conversation, to get us to share our time together in a more meaningful way. But to our way of thinking, we were already communing – by watching the same television program. Our collective lack of enthusiasm for the proposal killed it. We continued to mindlessly chuckle at lame jokes proffered by the yo-yo’s on the screen.
I didn’t get it back then. I do now.
When I was young, time was not a valuable commodity. It seemed an inexhaustible supply. Consequently, weeks, months, and even years were things that I often sought merely to endure. In my desire to reach potentially better tomorrows, I wished a good many todays away.
Life can be hard. Amid our many happy days are sprinkled scores of miserable ones. It is understandable that we seek to pass through them as quickly as possible.
But there is a price to pay for such impatience. A bill eventually comes due, one that arrives in the form of regret. At some point we are forced to face the fact that our present existences are finite. We discover that time is precious. We learn that when we rush ahead in order to get past unpleasantness, we rush by other things as well. Things such as opportunities to savor the company of loved ones who will not always be with us.
Earthly tomorrows, we finally acknowledge, are promised to no one. Because that is so, not a single today – not even a difficult one – should be wasted.
Beginning with this holiday season, I will make a concerted effort to change. I will try to resist the temptation to wish time away, even when life delivers to me pain and sorrow. Rather than covet a future that I imagine will be more comfortable than the present, I will try to better appreciate the here and now. I will remind myself that, even on my darkest days, I am blessed.
I will be grateful for this Christmas season. And for each one that remains to me. And for every day in between.
Copyright © 2008 Michael F. Murray -- All rights reserved.