Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Eve: Scrooged, almost...

...but saved by a Ghost of Christmases Past, Present, and it is to be hoped, Yet To Come.

December 24, 2008: A bummer of a day after a bummer of a couple of weeks. After finally recovering from three days of camping out down the street in a wood-stove-heated couple of rooms in our son James' house during a power failure, and two more days in a hotel waiting for the power and daily life to be restored, my wife and I, after a couple more days of feeling merely tired but not so stressed out, then got wiped out by powerful colds. Nothing fancy like flu -- for me it was just a day of feeling lousy followed by a whole night with a constantly streaming nose followed by a day of sneezing and coughing followed by a day and a night of a painfully sore throat followed by a day of deeper coughing and then a day of intermittent mild reminiscing with the wispy spirits of former symptoms. Lots of teas and honey and lozenges along the way, and little or no fever. And then the blahs. I haven't gone beyond our front and back porches since forever, and Janet has gone out on an errand only once. No last minute Christmas shopping for us.

So there I was in the early evening, at the dining room table eating scrambled eggs with red peppers and hot sauce and toast while Janet was eating hers in the kitchen, without the hot sauce and too bummed out to move or talk. She had said earlier that this is her worst Christmas. She really feels rotten. And I suddenly felt as if I were channeling the Alistair Sims version of Scrooge eating his Christmas Eve gruel in his cold, barely lit house. Alone and dreary.

Janet and I had recruited substitutes to take our places as the appointed lectors for the Christmas Eve service at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, only a mile or so from our house, so the cheering effects of friends, music, liturgy, and focused emotion wouldn't be available. And we felt the loss of our only liturgical function and one of our last remaining theatrical pleasures, the public reading of the Bible with proper attention to its dramatic aspects -- lively and forceful, emotional and heartfelt, though with the restraint and discipline appropriate for that 'performance venue'. And there's the always great food afterward....

But then our son James and granddaughter Hannah came in and we had a few small laughs. He didn't stay long but Hannah went upstairs to use one of our computers, as is her custom after having exceeded her computer time allotment at home. And I went upstairs, too, and read some emails, wrote some stuff, made two small donations and a largish one, and wrote my children about the one, the larger one, that I had made in their names as their Christmas presents, as a memorial to one of my best friends. That felt a little better, particularly after our daughter quickly emailed back about how pleased she was with her present.

But what really made the evening was a video. Friday, I had sleepily seen part of an interview on BBC with two ex-hostages -- a journalist, Alan Johnston, who had been kidnapped in Gaza and held four months, interviewing Ingrid Betancourt, who was held for almost 6 1/2 years by the FARC guerillas in Colombia. She had struck me as being extraordinary - just as the French newspaper La Monde had described her: beautiful, fragile, and strong. So tonight I looked up the video on the web. It's only part of a much longer interview, but it's a very telling part. And there's some text there which covers other parts of the interview.

There's also an article in The Guardian/Observer based on an interview with her. It too is worth reading for background and for more of her extraordinary story of extraordinary strength and spirituality. (Yeah, that's a lot of "extraordinary"s; I think I'm in love.)

So I felt moved to transcribe part of the video interview. If you're not familiar with her story, she had been kidnapped while campaigning for the Presidency of Colombia and had put herself in danger by taking the risk of traveling into FARC territory. No other national politician had done that. And she endured torture and humiliation that she is not yet ready to discuss fully, some of which she says should always "stay in the jungle". When she talks in the interview of "forgiving yourself", she's referring both to the pain caused to family and to any shame over failures in behaving well in captivity.

Toward the end of the 3 minute clip, Alan Johnston asks her if the experience had changed her.

She said: "It was a mutation, not only a transformation."

Alan: "It's easier to be empathetic?"

Ingrid: "Oh, very. God, yes. You can understand everything and forgive everything. You can...

Alan: "Really?"

Ingrid: "Oh yes."

Alan: "You're forgiving your captors?"

Ingrid: "Ohh, yes. And those are...I mean...not all, but some of them are very easy to forgive. Not others, but, of course, you know, you have to pick. But then, no, you forgive everything -- and you also have to forgive also the ones who forgot you, and that you loved, and didn't move a finger to help you. That's hard, but you forgive, also, that. But the real hard thing is to forgive yourself."

She then asked Alan: "Did you forgive yourself?" Alan looked down with a bit of a smile. Ingrid laughed and said with delight, "Yes you have. Yes you have. Oh, I'm so glad." And thus ended the video clip.

I think you have to see her face as she says these things. There's warmth and sensitivity, thoughtfulness and tough realism along with vulnerability and a winning joy. As a Ghost of Christmas Past, Ingrid Betancourt can show us terrible things -- things that persist and flourish in Christmas Present and will continue to persist and, alas, flourish in Christmases Yet To Come. But as a Ghost of Christmas Present, she shows the liberating power of forgiveness, something that still has almost no place in public life, business, or international affairs. And as a Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, she's one more Spirit pointing a slender hand to The Way that Pathfinders have blazed.

Although during her captivity, she wove a rosary out of string she saved from the repairing of guerillas' ammunition belts that she was forced to do, she rejected the suggestion that her spirituality is exclusively an expression of what the Guardian/Observer interviewer called "redemptive Christianity". "You and I can call it that, but it is no specific faith. It could be any religion. It is a deep belief in God and the human spirit." Or something like 'the Tao that can be named is not the true [or actual or eternal] Tao'?

Merry Christmas -- or as they say in England, Happy Christmas. Perhaps 'happy' runs a little deeper than 'merry'.

And here's to empathic mutations that go beyond transformation, however painful the process.