The Art Of Being Okay

000

Yesterday wasn’t the best day. When I woke up, something was stuck at the back of my mouth, tickling my tongue and making me retch. On peering in, I found my uvula was the size of a wax crayon, pointing forward instead of down. Being December 25, all drop-in centres near me were shut, as was the tube, so getting an anti-inflammatory took four hours’ trudging through rain in shoes with holes in them. My feet are still blistered, and I spent the rest of the day alone in a bedsit with no oven. I could probably be forgiven for being fed up—but strangely enough, I’m doing okay.

There’s a popular view that the word ‘fine’ is meaningless, that being fine, thank you when a friend asks after you is a hollow nicety. I wrote about depression back in June, and I’ve heard other people with it say as much. That isn’t my experience at all. When your two basic emotional states are ‘at risk of self-harm’ and ‘not at risk’, fine is the best you can hope for. Fine is precious. I sometimes find myself saying my symptoms come and go. In fact they only alternate: most days, when depression isn’t making me want to die, it makes me more reliably okay than almost anyone I know.

Friday was a crap day to cap off a shit year—a year of family harassment, homelessness and political hopelessness. The art of losing isn’t hard to master, and one does one’s best: I lost family and friends in the spring, watched the left lose in May, lost a place to live in July, lost money in winter. (Thanks, all who helped.) For once, I haven’t managed to lose faith. At the moment, I feel much better than I did in June. What living with depression means for me is that my emotions aren’t linked to external events, that how okay I am doesn’t depend on what happens to me. I’m rarely happy, but I’m almost always fine. [Read more…]

The Magic Of Reality: What Growing Up Christian Had To Do With Believing In Santa

000

If you ever believed in Santa—how did you find out that he wasn’t real?
And how did you feel about it?

* * *

Some childish things I put away early—others I stayed attached to for too long. In my last year of primary school, Mrs Fanshawe asked if I had toys and things at my dad’s, gauging, I now suspect, whether to let him collect me at home time. I remember sensing I ought to nod, doing so even as I wondered who the hell still played with toys aged ten. (At the time, I would have said ‘who on earth’.) I knew by then that there was no Saint Nick, except the real one, who was a disappointment of a saint, but it hadn’t been long since I’d found out. I’m never sure whether I grew up too fast or too late.

The garden where Mum and I built snowmen had been a rubbish tip, and our house was designed equally messily. Five doors opened onto the living room, which must have been twelve square metres at most, and only three led into other rooms. Behind Mum’s storytelling chair, a cupboard with two compartments stretched from floor to ceiling. The top one smelt of truffles when you poked your head inside, and was where passports and grownup letters were stored—and, more importantly, chocolate boxes and booze. One night a year a glass of sherry was left out, next to a mince pie and half a carrot.

I think I was nineish when Mum fessed up. I distinctly recall lying in bed, hugging the wall the way I liked to when she prayed for me. Before lights out, we’d talk a while, then she would sing the end of Numbers 6—‘The Lord bless you and keep you, the Lord make his face shine upon you’. That night, she told me Nicholas had been a patron of children even during his life—so what did I think their parents told them after he died? It strikes me now this was likely a fairy tale too, that all I’d done was graduate from one fiction to another, but at the time my reaction was one of confusion. In the years since, that hasn’t changed.

People attached to telling children Santa Claus is real often complain I don’t get it. I don’t. It’s never been intuitive to me why telling someone things you know are false—not to safeguard their wellbeing or your own, but just to watch them smile on being duped—is cruel and degrading in principle but twee in one specific case. Learning that Father Christmas was a lie didn’t make me cry or act up, but lied to was exactly how I felt. This year my niece turned eight: being required to play along was hard, and I’ve known parents admit to being more conflicted than they let on.

When friends say stories of a man in a red suit—the other one—made Christmas magical, I think they mean that on some level, they knew makebelieve when they saw it, but that the power of ritual swept them up. I sympathise—all stories are enchantments, all words spells. The trouble is, Father Christmas was more than a story to me, more than something I half believed. I knew the tooth fairy was imaginary, that costumed men who gave us Dairy Milk on the last day of term were imposters—there was enough nudging and winking in each case—but as I saw it, the man himself was every bit as real as God.

Mum came to regret that particular literalism. ‘I made it into something it was never meant to be,’ she told me some years back. There are a lot of memes about Father Christmas and God, some better than others, but in my mind, they occupied exactly the same space. I was used to the idea whatever extraordinary things Mum spoke of must be true (and she spoke of far more extraordinary things than Christian children all receiving gifts on the same night)—to the idea holding extraordinary beliefs was itself virtuous, never more so than if hostile nonbelievers surrounded you.

It wasn’t simply that we were Christians: plenty of children raised in Christian homes are functionally able to distinguish makebelieve from sincere belief (supernatural or not) perfectly well. It was that Mum and her then-church practised an evangelicalism that never drew any such line. Magic, makebelieve, ritual, story, play—these were never acknowledged as mere suspensions of disbelief, or as a realm in which belief might constitute something subtly different. All beliefs were literal, and makebelieve itself was a dangerous and demon-haunted thing: thinking Halloween was only a game was how the enemy got you.

Atheists are often stereotyped as Philistines with one-dimensional worldviews and no grasp of aesthetics or ritual. That described my church upbringing more than it describes me. In my experience, letting stories be stories only strengthens their magic. Believing Santa Claus was real caused me to miss the beauty I now see in the leaving-out of a small sherry and a mince pie, and Mum’s prayers worked because of how she sang, not because she believed—because of a cupboard of secret things, a chair in which fantastic tales were told, and the first snowman in the world that never had to melt.

* * *

I tell stories and write a blog. If you enjoy my work,
consider 
becoming a patron or leaving a tip.

Follow my tweets at @AlexGabriel,
keep up with 
my writing, or get in touch.

In defence of the War on Christmas

As 2011’s royal wedding happened, the Guardian hit on a stroke of genius. Perched in easily missed white type atop its sprawling coverage, a tiny button read “Republicans click here”, which when activated hid all related stories. The button, which proved popular enough to reappear this year when the couple’s child was born, made the paper’s site a refuge for the unenthused, the only place online or otherwise where bunting and bootlicking could be escaped. As Advent commences, I often wish such a filter hid reminders of Christmastime from view.

As Russell Glasser of The Atheist Experience notes on the programme’s blog, arguments for the validity of godless Christmas celebrations have done well in recent years. These are the “Axial tilt is the reason for the season” shirts, the “Keep the merry, dump the myth!” placards of American Atheists, the selection of cards sold by the British Humanist Association, the Digital Cuttlefish’s books of festive (and fun) poems; they’re various chapters in Ariane Sherine’s Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, and by implication part of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, the Rationalist Association’s annual benefit; they fill countless column inches by Robin Ince (its host), Richard Dawkins, Elisabeth Cornwell, Myra Zepf, Alain de Botton, Alom Shaha and Jim Al-Khalili among others.

The case, summed up in AA’s slogan, is no doubt as familiar to atheists today as are the faults of Pascal’s Wager, both being discussions with believers one comes across too frequently for comfort. Many of our Christmas customs if not most – gift-giving, good will, feasts, festooned fir trees and Father Christmas – aren’t of a necessarily religious character, the argument goes. If superstitions bequeath us an excuse to have at them, why look a gift horse in the mouth?

The logic’s sound, but commonplace enough that it risks seeming both reflexive and received. I decided to give up Christmas last year, for no more grand a reason than that personally, I don’t enjoy it. With such passionately vocal thirst to reclaim it in the secular community, it’s hard not to feel at least mildly rebuked, as if my absence from the bandwagon endangers a key atheist PR objective, stopping images of secularist grinches waging war on Christmas being properly cast off.

The trouble, and I’ve only realised it in recent years, is that I’m not gladdened by the merry or the myth – the non-religious elements, plenty as they are, grate as much as does the sermonising.

Yes, I’m turned off by the BBC broadcasting Bible readings, church services and carols about blood and gall – but I’m just as turned off by their annoying, repetitive melodies. I’m angered by Operation Christmas Child, and by millions of children being made to sing said carols in their schools or act out narratives from religions whose ideas they may not share and aren’t yet well placed to assess – but I’m just as angry parents lie to their children about who provides their presents, often objecting to them being told the truth, for no clear reason except finding the deception somehow sweet. I don’t enjoy the smell of tangerines, the putting up of decorations, the taste of mince pies or the expectation I gorge myself on food I’d never otherwise eat, enduring sit-down meals and light dinner conversation (no swear words allowed) with relatives I’d rather not encounter. In the end, I struggle mostly to be cheerier than usual for contrived and arbitrary reasons.

If you are a Christmas person, and clearly many of us are, I’m all for your enjoying the rituals of your choice – we’d do well to be cautious, though, of insisting “Of course atheists love Christmas”, implying as a chorus of this insistence does that we not only can but should. One perk of non-religious life, it’s been argued in New Humanist before, is the right to pick and choose our festivals. A status quo where atheists feel bad for not being Christmassy enough has something very wrong with it.

Atheism’s collective urgency to show festive credentials is understandable. As Glasser writes, “[p]opular culture is full of rotten characters who hate Christmas. Ebenezer Scrooge. The Grinch. Narnia’s White Witch.” Alone among calendar dates, failing to love it ostentatiously provokes a barrage of reproach: I’ve been called a killjoy, a spoilsport and an Eeyore for disliking it, but never for finding Valentine’s Day crass or New Year underwhelming.

One wonders if the keenness to affirm secular love for Christmas stems in part from a desire to placate religious critics, assuring them our boat-rocking plans are limited. Certainly, Eric Pickles’ call three years ago for councils “not [to] allow politically correct Grinches to marginalise Christianity” drew valid fire for recycling myths about “the likes of Winterval, Winter Lights and Luminous” as evidence for a so-called war on Christmas, but Pickles also demanded councils fund “carol services and nativity scenes” – a valid target, surely, for secularist pressure?

Baulk as we might at the “war on Christmas” narrative, parts of how Britain marks it belong in godless people’s crosshairs, from government-backed proselytising of this kind to evangelism in state schools, religious programming at licence payers’ expense and the pollution at large of the public sphere’s secularity. However excised of religion Christmas exhibits might be in marketplaces and the media, they’ve undoubtedly opened the door to public religious displays more widely in the name of inclusivity – Oxford’s giant street-mounted menorah, say, lit each Hanukkah by the town mayor and a local Rabbi, or Channel 4’s broadcasting the adhān for Ramadan this year.

The object of a so-called war on Christmas (and on all these articles of faith as establishments of public life) is really a profoundly diplomatic settlement, an understanding of the public sphere as neutral, unclaimed territory rather than land divided among orthodox religious groups. This is why I can’t support the ‘multifaith’ approach above, espoused on Bill O’Reilly’s programme by Chris Stedman recently: a multifaith public square is as bad as a single faith one, in some ways worse, because it still gives public authority to clergy; still makes people outsiders who won’t participate; still pollutes the peaceful neutrality of a marketplace which asks no one to demonstrate their piety.

However secular or holy we think the festive season is, that détente matters. Those in atheism who sit happily with unwrapped gifts and hangovers on Boxing Day should think twice before they lapse into unravelling it themselves, keen to ‘destigmatise’ secularists by showing us as Christmas-lovers. A culture of pressure to participate fostered by atheists is as bad as one produced by theocrats like Pickles – neither tolerates dissent, and both perpetuate the notion those who don’t join in are spite-filled Scrooges.

If we care for people’s conscientious freedom or right to live by the calendar they choose, we shouldn’t let fears of seeming grinchish silence us when religion encroaches on public life at Christmastime; equally, we should support those in our ranks who don’t do Christmas, and oppose the spectre of the Grinch being used to guilt or smear them. Call this scaling back of peer pressure a war on Christmas if you must, and Bill O’Reilly is correct that it exists; to me, it seems like giving peace on Earth a chance.

Winter is coming: forget Christmas and fall in love with it

Warning: contains spoilers for C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series.

Each season has a scent to herald and define it. Summer’s belongs to sizzling car roofs and sweating rubber tyres, the static residue of thunderstorms following heatwaves, autumn’s to low-hanging mist and rotting leaves, then toffee apples, fireworks and chip fat running into drains. Winter’s at its height is fresh, the icy clean of morning frosts and condensation-covered windows, but its first approach has an anflug of its own – the oily, faint metallic wash of pipes grinding back into use, radiators moaning once more while cold hangs in the air outside. This was the smell that filled my house this morning.

Till January I’m resident again in my home town, a draughty, church-filled thorp near the Scottish border, twenty miles of mountains, lakes and woods to either side. Not since 2008 have I seen winter in here: for the five years in between, I spent those months either in Oxford or Berlin, returning Christmastime to a place transformed without viewing the transformation. Before that, winter was a misery, dark days and long nights holed up, blocked up and fed up, craving sunlight and release. As a teen I loathed this town, longed to escape its smothering isolation – the day my A-levels reached an end, also the day I turned eighteen, I packed a bag and left by train, staying on the road till university – and the darkest, coldest time of year when venturing outside was foolish made it feel more cut off still. Our calendar’s last months, the dying embers of the year, seemed lifeless, desolate, as bare emotionally as nearby forests.

I wonder looking back how much of this reflects the religion of my childhood. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis’ Christian allegory for children after which my whole bedroom aged eight was styled, the titular witch Jadis – having corrupted it on its creation – curses all Narnia with a winter that never ends, though Christmas never comes. (Why Narnians ever celebrated Christmas, God’s avatar in their world being Aslan, I still haven’t quite fathomed.) The bleak midwinter makes a familiar metaphor, as in Rossetti’s poem and its hymnal setting, for a world short of salvation: Christmas arrives, both first time round and for believers since, a light in the darkness, imbuing creation once more with life and hope.

The trope isn’t unique to Christianity, whose major rites are at once its most syncretic. Those festivals which fall around midwinter, as festivals are prone to do, have often stood for redemption in some sense or other: feasting after a year’s hard labour, remembering past struggles’ fruits, festooning evergreens and keeping fires lit, reminders the cold season’s atrophy will give way in its turn to spring. Summon your fondest images of winter – aren’t they, in fact, ones of its mitigation? Music and merriment to counteract bleak weather, time with loved ones to stop icy roads and storms cutting us off; fires to beat discomfort back, roast feasts and sweet things to quell emptiness psychic as well as bodily. We console ourselves, in Steven Moffat’s words, that we’re half way out of the dark, toasting our own resilience and emergence soon from the the cold more than we toast the cold itself.

My godless life rather enacts Lewis and Rosetti’s spiritual winter – an atheist, my world has yet to thaw in their terms (or rather, has succumbed to deconversion’s heat death), and my secularity of late runs deeper still. Partially as an introvert, partially tending despite myself toward the ascetic, I’ve little time nowdays for festivity, Christmas included: its trappings and traditions leave me jangled, stressed and out of sorts – longing, if I might half-inch a term from Christian liturgy, for ordinary time. The best December of my life so far, I spent alone two years back in Berlin, 2011’s last weeks pursued in solitude except online, nothing at all of Christmas or much else timetabled in. If this sounds glum, it was the perfect converse: nothing can be a hugely profitable thing to do, and ducking pomp and circumstance made me aware I generally dislike them – on birthdays, solstices or other dates. Berlin’s long freeze, in fact, prompted me to review my thoughts on colder seasons: I now find Narnia’s Christmasless winter quite ideal.

Like atheists, winter requires no redemption. My instinct is if we accepted it – if we focused in simply on feeling winter, instead of self-distracting with egg nog and tinselled trees, trying not to feel it – we just might fall for Jack Frost on his own terms. As the scent of winter’s nearness greeted me, sweeping between the house’s walls, I thought of its barren beauty, like that of deserts and ghost towns: exhalations thick and opaque, vanishing seconds after forming, empty skies clear and crystalline. The shortness of the days is precious, not oppressive, enough to give us pause and make us catch them while we can; being stuck inside, an invitation to focus on what counts. And what wakes slumbering neurons like a brisk morning’s cold snap, kicking the senses into gear, the mind into the present moment?

This is what winter’s bleakness really offers: a chance to re-enter the here and now, less busy and finer-tuned. Instead of seeking ways around it, let’s learn to learn to love that.

Winter is coming. I welcome it.

Not all of us love Christmas, and that’s perfectly all right

At Christmastime, it’s fashionable for secularists to say that actually, yes, they do love Christmas. A recent article by Jim Al-Khalili, ‘Why this atheist celebrates Christmas’, exemplifies the trend, as do the many online memes and comments arguing there’s nothing religious about gift-giving or decorated trees. “You don’t need to believe in Mithras to enjoy the tradition of celebrating the sun’s rebirth”, one of them reads, “and you don’t need to believe in Jesus Christ to enjoy the tradition of renaming this ancient holiday”.

With Eric Pickles and the right-wing press united in insistence that “militant secularisation” will “allow politically correct Grinches to marginalise Christianity”, it’s an understandable line of response to stress that godless people, too, love the festive season. Yet not all of us do. For some of us, Christmas is hard to enjoy – and yes, religion and the privilege it enjoys play a role in this.

Continue reading.