Sunday January 10, 2021
Years ago, I started writing a summary of the good things and bad things that had happened that year.
At first, I had little difficulty separating good from bad. My two lists – good and bad – bore little connection to each other.
But as time passed, I discovered that different aspects of the same situations were showing up in both lists.
This year, the overlap is almost total. Bad things occurred, certainly, but part of each parcel included good things. And vice versa. Like Frank Sinatra singing about love and marriage, you can’t have one without the other.
Take Donald Trump. Please. (A line borrowed from stand-up comedy.)
He’s arrogant, biased, bigoted, deluded, despicable, disgusting, egotistical, ignorant, illiterate, insensitive, prejudiced, selfish, stupid, uninformed, venomous, wilful, and just plain wrong.
Have I been too kind to him?
If there were any doubt, he has shown his true colours since his electoral defeat. He has acted like a pit viper someone stepped on. He’s lethal; he lashes out; he wants to make everyone who humiliated him suffer.
We saw the effects on Wednesday, when his fanatic followers stormed the Capitol.
How can his behaviour be a ”good thing”?
Easy -- he proved I was right about him, all along. (I never said that the good and bad had to be equal, only that they were intertwined!)
It’s nice to be proved right.
2020 will certainly be remembered as the year of the pandemic. COVID-19 has dominated the news ever since it was identified in Wuhan, back in January, up to the arrival of the first vaccines, shortly before Christmas. In the U.S. alone, it has caused three times more deaths –even allowing that some deaths blamed on COVID-19 would have happened anyway – as all the country’s military casualties since World War II.
It has closed businesses, disrupted travel, damaged relationships, blanked professional sports, shut down worship services, and increased rates of suicide and abuse.
But on the other side, corporations have learned that they don’t have to confine their staff to cubicles to get work done. Parents have had more time with young children (some may not call that a good thing).
Scientists have worked across national boundaries to develop vaccines in record time.
Churches have proved astonishingly innovative at developing online worship; clergy and staff have discovered skills they never knew they had.
Front-line health-care workers have demonstrated heroism, every day.
Take-out food services have boomed. So have retail sales, for stuff like guns and toilet paper.
Sports leagues have found ways for the game to go on, even without stadiums full of fans.
Government programs to reduce harm have forced economists to question unquestionable dogmas.
And amorous individuals have found better ways of getting to know someone than speed dating.
At a personal level, 2020 will always be the year my wife died. Nothing will change that (certainly not speed dating). She died the night before the province imposed lock-down COVID-19 restrictions.
It was, as I have written before, the loneliest that I have ever been.
But those final months, as I have also written, were a blessing. Any petty differences we had left, after 60 years of marriage, just evaporated.
And life after her death has been lightened by countless acts of kindness.
A young woman, a total stranger, volunteered as a pen pal.
My daughter became my friend.
I got a delightful dog for company.
And I am learning, slowly, that living alone is not as bad as I had feared. There is pleasure in learning to cook, to knit, to make my own choices.
The whole experience reinforces my conviction that good and bad are subjective labels, artificial concepts for our minds to play with.
There’s no objective thing as “good”. Or bad. What’s good for me may be bad for you. Tourists pray for sunshine, while farmers pray for rain.
Good is not simply the opposite of bad. Defining promiscuity as bad doesn’t make celibacy good. Avoiding debt (bad) by letting poor people suffer isn’t good.
Rejecting one extreme doesn’t mean going to the other extreme.
Good and bad both lie somewhere on a continuum between the extremes of too much and too little.
No single point, no single situation, defines “good.” Rather, we recognize, instinctively, when something gets taken too far. Physical intimacy becomes abuse or exploitation. Social lubricants become addictions. Strong leadership turns into tyranny, fascism.
Any extreme becomes harmful, damaging. Not good.
And if 2020 helps more of us see that truth, it can’t have been all bad.
Copyright © 2021 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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It has been two weeks since the last Sharp Edges column went out. The newspaper that actually pays me something for writing these columns decided not to publish on either of the weekends of Christmas and New Year, so, without the pressure of deadlines, I enjoyed the luxury of NOT writing. Today’s letters, therefore, go back to the column where Joan’s Christmas ornament imploded in my hands as I went to put it on the top of my tree.
Jim Henderschedt read the story and winced: “I saw and heard the end of the ‘spire’ tradition and my heart ached for you and a tear formed at the corner of my eyes. Your witness should take its place among the classics of Christmas to be read and contemplated. Thank you for sharing your journey and for leading us through the uncharted waters of love, loss, and hope.”
John Shaffer: “What a poignant story. I reflect on what may happen if my spouse goes first. She knows the story behind every decoration she puts on the tree. She repeats the story for me when I am willing to listen. I can't remember them all, but I rejoice that she can. What will happen to the ‘story’ when she is no longer here to remember? What will happen to the treasures? At least there will be no implosion. The angel on top [of our tree] is not breakable, as it is plastic mesh. It was a gift from a family member years ago. I had to ask Barbara (my wife) because I don't remember the details.”
Isabel Gibson spoke for half a dozen others, whose letters I have not included: “I'm sorry Joan's ornament didn't survive her. I'm glad you're able to cherish what you do have.”
Florence Driedger wrote movingly about five deaths that all took place in the last year: “None of the five were due to the pandemic; all died of natural causes. The very sad part of this is the inability to have friends present to be supportive during the final saying goodbye and be with the person to help in the closure.
“I phone on a weekly basis to do what I can, but it is so hard knowing how to really comfort these friends in their deepest time of grief. We pray, we talk, and I hope they can find peace. And to think of all the people who have lost loved ones because of COVID 19 is hard to fathom.
“Thank you for sharing your grief with all of us. I do believe the saying, ‘Shared sorrow is halved and shared joy is doubled’.”
Bob Rollwagen looked ahead: “Now, when you look at the top of your Christmas tree, you see something new or nothing -- I am not sure as you did not say. Regardless, what you see is a space that is different in a significant way, and you know why. The memory is a good one, the physical presence is deeper and stronger and healthier. Your wife was the one who put the spire on the tree. She was gentle and she placed it carefully.
“Everything is fragile. It is life that should be cherished. It will be a wonderful Christmas. My gifts have arrived at my kids’ homes, technology puts them within reach, they are all healthy and privileged, they are all involved loving individuals doing things with their circumstances that make me so proud. I have ornaments that have memories but I do not see them when I look at the tree. I see the times we have had around the tree and will have again.”
Gayle Simonson saw beyond the specific incident: “I certainly agree that beauty is important. Whether visual or musical, It touches the heart. I think Robert Browning put it best in his poem Fra Lippo Lippi when he said, ‘If you get simple beauty and nought else, you get about the best thing God invents.’”
Clare Neufeld has eagle eyes, and a daughter fluent in Spanish: “The way I was introduced to it, was written as ‘Las Posadas’. [JT: I had written ‘Los Posadas’.] I’m no expert, but it seems to me it could make a difference.”
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