December 10, 2001
Hanukkah, or the Jewish festival of lights, began yesterday. It is interesting that the story of Hanukkah can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, it is the story of political liberation; on the other, it’s a story of spiritual faith. It was during the Greek occupation of Judea that the Jews tired of the oppression and, led by the Maccabees, arose and took on the great military might of the Greek empire.
The Jews liberated Judea — that is the political story. Upon liberating the temple in Jerusalem, they found that the eternal flame had gone out. Despairing because they had only enough oil to light the lamp for one day, they lit it, knowing that more oil was a week away.
The miracle was that one day’s worth of oil lasted for eight. So the holiday commemorates not a military victory, but a demonstration of God’s commitment to the Jews. All these years later, it is the spiritual story that’s really the most important.
It is also no small irony that at this same time of year, the Christians celebrate the birth of Christ. Jesus also took on a larger power — the Roman Empire. The story of Jesus is not about the political role he played in the ongoing struggle for liberation against Rome (even though there is one); it is really about the spiritual story of His immaculate conception, His offer of redemption to mankind and the birth of a light where there once was only darkness.
Winter is a fascinating time: the days get shorter and the nights get longer. Cold creeps into the bones, and the last harvests have long since been picked and stored.
For primitive humans faced with the loss of the sun, this must have been a pretty scary time. They must have wondered: will it come back? Will it stay away this time? Will we survive? Just surviving another year demanded faith. Faith that their stores of food would hold out. Faith that the sun would return. Faith that they would survive.
So, security was found in faith, found in the belief that the light would last eight days rather than one, found in prayer and fasting. It is the time that demands faith, since reality is a bit shaky.
And even though we don’t live in primitive times, we still need faith.
I was talking to my friend Jeanie the other day and she told me about someone very dear to her who had just been laid off from his longtime job. He’s having a hard time. This is a story I am hearing frequently these days as I speak with friends around the country. These are difficult times for many and insecure times for most.
This person Jeanie was referring to is having a hard time on a couple of different levels. The first level is difficult but rational and comprehensible: that is the hard work of looking for work and the fear of not finding it. The second level is profoundly more difficult, less rational and terribly painful: it is the loss of one’s sense of self. We live in a culture in which we tend to determine our value as a human by things that are external to us — what we own and what we do. We have come to believe that “I work, therefore I am.”
And worse, we tend to judge the value of others in the same way. All too often, we identify the value of a person by where they are in a perceived hierarchy of the working world. In this way, an executive is perceived to be more valuable than a janitor, and a doctor more valuable than a teacher. And everybody is more valuable than a retail sales clerk. Rather than looking into the hearts of others, we look at their net worth to determine what kind of person they are.
That would be sad enough, but where we really cause ourselves pain is when our criteria for our own self-worth is our title and not our heart — our possessions and not the quality of our soul, what we own and not who we are.
I know because I’ve been there. I just went through a long period of unemployment. This time it was bad, but not nearly as bad as when something similar happened to me about sixteen years ago. Then, it was only about four months and I had enough money to see me through that hard time, but I still ran headfirst into a wall which damn near killed me. It was the wall of my own sense of value. During those days of not having a job, my sense of self-worth dropped from the heights of arrogance like a cannonball into an abyss of feeling worthless as a human being. What was I if not my work?
During this time, I was so depressed and lost that not even the voices of friends and family helped. They surrounded me with affection and reminded me of all I had accomplished, and that somebody as talented as I could not go very long without finding the right job. As loving as these voices were, they were also food for the monster because they reinforced the notion that my self-worth was tied to my past accomplishments. I was still no more than the sum of what I had done.
Among these voices around me were the quieter ones in my own head that told me that none of this really mattered. What I had achieved, what I might achieve, was not the issue at all.
To be a good man does not require a job. To be a giving, caring person does not demand an executive title. I began to see this time off from work as a way to develop other interests that would nurture my soul rather than enhance my bottom line.
During difficult times, I try to listen to the quiet voices inside. They usually have the most to say. It’s all about faith — faith in ourselves.
I define faith very simply: to me, it is the belief that things really will work out okay.
In difficult times, faith in oneself sure makes a difference. For all those who suddenly find themselves without work, it is so easy to lose faith in yourself, lose faith in your competence, lose faith in your own power to influence your future. It is so easy to forget that when the foundation seems to have fallen away, you and your abilities are still there, still as solid as they ever were.
For many, the profound lesson of the truth is that stability is an illusion. Life is about constant change, and the only thing we can always expect is the unexpected.
But fear of the unknown is a seductive emotion. It’s seductive because it seems more real than hope and faith. But the truth is, when we run toward fear, we run not only from hope and faith, but from ourselves and life itself.
When I feel afraid I always ask myself, “Hey, what is the worst that can happen?” The answer is always, “Well, okay, I can cope with that.” I know that no matter what my circumstance, the sun still shines, the colors of life still excite me and the love of friends offers a cozy sanctuary and inspiration.
I have a favorite quote from the German philosopher Heidegger. When asked how a philosopher like him could believe in God, he replied, “It is easy. If I believe in God I have the simple task of explaining the existence of God. To not believe in God means I have the very difficult task of explaining the existence of everything else.”
So, at this time of year, whether you celebrate Hanukah or Christmas, take time to reaffirm your faith. Listen to the quiet whispers of your own heart. Those are whispers of hope. The sun always does come up tomorrow, and after the long winter, it really will be okay.