More Surprise (Advent for the Skeptical and Weary, Part 6)
I started this series because I started this season feeling skeptical and weary. If you want to catch up, I’ve written about my petulant Christmas card process, seasonal depression, the difficulty of hope, and being burnt out on giving and serving. Also: whiskey, crappy chocolate, and our troubling President-elect. Yes, it’s been merry indeed.
Among the questions I was mulling over this Advent was this:
What to do in a season of giving when you feel like you have nothing more to give?
I know there is no requirement—ethically, religiously, cosmically, socially, even personally—to give anything more in the weeks leading up to Christmas than at any other time of the year, but something about consciously observing Advent made me want to. I had just written about how Advent looks forward to a better, more just and loving world. However, I also know that thinking of doing anything extra sounds stupid and masochistic when I’ve written so much about feeling spent. Like, hey idiot, just take a pass this year.
This would make sense if giving is only about meeting moral requirements. But it is also about participating in something. I want to participate in a world bigger than my own family. Coming up on Christmas, I wanted to give something beyond a small pile of toys to my kids. Because my kids are beloved, beyond beloved, beyond valuable to me, but the world is also bigger than my kids.
I was feeling particularly disturbed and upset about the violence in Syria. I was thinking of those kids, many of whom have died in bombed-out buildings or lost their parents the same way and in many areas of Aleppo, had no access to food other than bread at exorbitant prices. It was just messing with me. Beyond my normal Oh, that’s a shame.
There’s a remarkable organization called Mercy Corps that works to alleviate poverty, suffering and oppression all over the world in innovative ways. They’ve been active in Syria for years now, drawing attention to the suffering there long before most of the world took notice.
I didn’t have a ton of money to give them or any time to volunteer for them, and honestly, I wasn’t thinking about it that much because it seemed out of the question to do anything.
But one day (surprise) I got a fundraising letter in the mail from them, and as I was reading it, an idea popped into my head. Something I could do.
It was a particular, semi-unusual, behind the scenes kind of thing, and it wasn’t anything sweeping or heroic and I knew it would not sap my energy in the way that childcare or volunteering does.
I set up a fundraiser on the Mercy Corps site and sent an email to fifteen people I love, pledging to do this particular, semi-unusual, behind-the-scenes kind of thing for four days. It will remain behind-the-scenes, as I pledged to my friends it would be, so let’s just call it jumping on a trampoline for five minutes every hour. I told my friends I would donate a small bit of money to Mercy Corps each day for four days that I jumped on this trampoline, and asked if they would give some money too.
A bunch of them did, and we raised some money.
This doesn’t solve suffering in Syria. But no one person alone can solve suffering in Syria. It was, you know, a trickle.
It was, to me, an echo of what I’d recently remembered: accepting the ways you can serve. My problem, perhaps, not being with a life of service, but in contorting myself into serving in ways I honestly can’t, right now.
Finally: A return to the question of what to do in a season of giving when what you need is some receiving.
Here, finally, is my “unearned ending”: the reason this has to be a blog entry and not a literary essay.
During my four-day semi-secret fundraiser, I got an email from the writing program where I’d gone to grad school. They needed some help at an upcoming residency and wanted to know if I would come and do some office work for a few days, in exchange for room and board and going to readings and lectures by some really wonderful writers. And being around people who feel like my people. Which is the thing I’d been so hungry for.
* * *
I didn’t plan to end my Advent for the Skeptical and Weary series this way. I’ll also admit I don’t really want to. It feels not-true, or not entirely true, even though it’s entirely factual, and I keep thinking about why; and I think it’s because, if I tried to make a principle or broader moral out of this ending, it wouldn’t be. We don’t always get what we’re starving for. I want to untie the neat bow it appears I’ve tied on the end of this post.
Once in a while, especially when I am skeptical and weary, I do like to hear a story of surprise. So this is my personal story of surprise. Many of these things shouldn’t have surprised me, but we are human and sometimes forgetful, so fine.
It surprised me to ask the question of “What am I hoping for?” and actually uncover something to hope for.
It surprised me to ask the question “What am I supposed to give when I have nothing left to give?” and find that I actually did have something to give.
It surprised me to crankily poke holes in the idea of pursuing a life of service, and then realize that I might be serving, without knowing it, in a different way.
Part of the reason I came into this month weary was politics: my grief and worry over the administration that’s about to take power here in the U.S. It surprised me to learn that traditionally, Advent does not just commemorate a birth a long time ago. It looks forward to a new world that’s being created and revealed right now, in the midst of a lot of injustice. I didn’t mention this in any of my posts, because it didn’t seem to fit, but in the Gospel stories, Jesus is born under the reign of King Herod—a man who amassed power and wealth and built enormous buildings that he named after himself (seriously). But in this atmosphere of greed and power and dominance, love appears in a tiny body to challenge it. Ultimately, love wins. This is something I want to believe as we approach the inauguration.
It surprised me to start Advent flummoxed by a season of giving—and then experience it, in fact, as a season of receiving. Receiving something for myself, something I’d been aching for.
* * *
I end this series of posts somewhat embarrassed as a writer, because I didn’t mean to write some kind of sermon or devotional. I will probably always be skeptical.
However, at the moment, I end this series of posts also grateful as a human… because I am less weary than I was at the start.