When I last wrote a series of Advent posts, I was driven by a concern that everyone seemed to be dying. Prince. George Michael. Carrie Fisher. Alan Rickman. David Bowie. The news became something to be feared; every day seemed to bring another premature death of someone whose loss brought home the truth that every man’s death diminishes me, for these were I wasn’t alone. If there was a God, why was he taking all these lives? What is death for? And why couldn’t Prince have lived forever? (I still want an answer to this, by the way.) These feel like innocent concerns now. If there was no death, there would be no life – only an eternal wandering, devoid of growth and learning and birth and discovery. None of this makes it easy, but the very grief and sorrow that floors us when it comes is a tribute to the life that has gone.
Times have changed since then. I’m still frightened to open the newspaper, but it’s not because I’m worried about who might have died. It’s because the world is so unbelievably terrible. I saw a lesser-known Arthur Miller play a few years ago, Broken Glass, in which a New York woman, so affected by the horrors of Kristellnacht, finds herself unable to move her legs. I was younger then. I’d won a debating competition proposing the motion ‘This house believes that Nazi war criminals should be brought to justice,’ believing passionately that we mustn’t forget. But I didn’t truly believe such things could ever come to pass again. I remember being rather impatient with the heroine. What use was lying in bed while everyone worried about you? Get up! Talk! Debate! Read! Educate yourself; open up discussions, campaign, march…
But Broken Glass isn’t set in the decades after the Holocaust. It’s set in 1938. Sylvia is reading of Kristallnacht in the paper, just as I read about the migrant caravan, homelessness, free movement ending ‘for good,’ the global rise in nationalism. She’s navigating the signposts of a breaking world, and it paralyses her. As the play progresses, we find that there are issues with her relationship – that other terrors of her world are unleashed by her reaction to the news. If the world around us becomes fragile, how can we continue to support the fractures in our own? And yet, if everything breaks, what is left? Sometimes, it feels as though simply keeping my own legs operational is a mammoth task.
For months now, I have planned to prepare a new series of Advent posts. In 2016, I tried to explore death and loss in the context of faith. I had a plan – I would prepare all twenty four posts in advance. I’d make sure I’d covered the ghastly non-Christianity of the Trump administration, the fact that people who profess God the loudest are often those who are acting in ways diametrically opposite to the teachings of the man they call their prophet. And over twenty four days, I would move gently to my own faith that, far from being a weak, temporising response to an increasingly destructive world, kindness is the superpower we need. A superpower available to each and every one of us, a superpower which is both easy and impossible, a superpower that requires untold strength – but which generates that strength, too.
Needless to say, I didn’t write my twenty four posts. I’m about as prepared for Advent as I am for the school fair this morning or the Unicorn Olympics party I’m running this afternoon. Here I am on the First of December, trying to make sense of the scrawled notes I’ve been making (‘Beans and sprouts – lady outside Waitrose – ADVENT? No me neither). I’ve never lived through times as politically dark as this. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that times are hard in my private life too. But one thing I have learned is that, in dark times, sometimes you can only concentrate on the next step. Just one.