Life hurts. I could’ve told you that anyway, but yesterday I was enjoying (?) an article entitled ‘the Anthropology of Suffering’ which spelt out the concept in greater detail.
Recently one of my classmates critiqued an article we’d read by suggesting that while its writer had painted a picture of the injustice in the world, he hadn’t really got down to dealing with why injustice existed in the first place. Her remark stuck with me. I look back at the term and think about the ways that we’ve talked about political, economic, sociological and developmental ‘solutions’ to the world’s ‘problems’, acknowledging that none of them have ever really worked. Not properly. Not forever. Yet people keep pushing on to organise, transform and fix the world. To find a ‘durable solution’, if we’re choosing to stick with the migration/development lingo.
So it was refreshing to read this article which stated quite bluntly that life is actually a little bit messed-up and that pain and breakdown come as part of the package. War is a normal reality, pain is a normal reality, famine is a normal reality. We try and organise societies and mean well in the process, but often the outcomes aren’t all that positive. Our social organisation looks more like ramshackle shanty towns not honeycomb hexagons. Yep, I get it. I liked how he floated the idea that there are no socially-defined ways of mourning a lost way of life, so we assimilate these types of loss into our normal routines of pain and call it ‘cultural bereavement’. He may be talking about refugees but I am thinking of the lost way of life that happens every day as time passes. I am thinking about the fact that this Christmas eve will remind me of Christmas eve last year which I spent with someone I loved yet who is no longer here. Yep, life hurts. War, famine, beareavement, heartbreak. Macro and micro levels alike.
As you can see, I’m a bit mopey at the moment, and reading ‘the Anthropology of Suffering’ probably didn’t help. But then the bell rang and there, on the doorstep, was a woman from church. Let’s call her Blessing. In spite of having multiple issues going on around immigration, housing and money, she’d stood up in church the other week to tell everyone that God is good and that God provides. On this occasion, she was popping by with a Christmas card. After a brief chat, she set off into the cold afternoon and I returned to my cheery suffering article. But her fleeting visit had really helped. Somehow she was a snapshot of a hurting, messed-up world while also drawing my eyes to the place of kindness and hope within it.
I decided that while a dose of gospel music might not fix the world it may well perk me up a bit, so I turned on a CD that Mum and Dad had picked up at a local jumble sale – ’10 years of the African Children’s Choir’ – which had pictures of happy little kids singing their hearts out on the front of it. (I have been inspired by my old housemate who’s just back from Sierra Leone and who had responded to my teary phonecall earlier with “Right, I’m going to pray for you… I mean, I’m going to pray for you now, over the phone… you see, I’ve come back from Africa very Christian”). So I listened to the choir singing a mix of cheery cheese and found myself singing along: ‘Soon and very soon we are going to see the King. No more crying there, we are going to see the King. No more dying there, we are going to see the King’. Soon and very soon. Advent, right? A reminder of past incarnation and future return.
Last year, incarnation for me was East Oxford and the Word becoming flesh and moving into the neighbourhood. This year incarnation is messier and more global. I look at peaceful nativity scenes on Christmas cards and wonder how it became so sanitised. So 2-D. So glittery. Mary and Joseph; short-term migrants for the sake of a census, having a baby miles from home in sub-standard temporary accommodation, little knowing that they’d soon be forced to live as refugees in Egypt as they fled a despot’s brutal genocide.Grim.Given our current treatment of ‘asylum sneakers’ (as an Aussie headline recently put it) and the like, it’s hardly a surprise that the world didn’t recognise him when he was there.
I wonder what I don’t recognise and what I miss as a result. I am thankful that my afternoon was cheered by Blessing’s visit and the fact that she had reminded me of the potential for life and hope even when things are broken (or even because things are broken?) And I think of Mary who can’t have found that first Christmas easy but who nonetheless experienced joy and pondered all these things in her heart.
This year, I reclaim a messy incarnation, both as my inspiration and as the way I choose to follow, and I hold out for the ultimate durable solution.
Come back soon.