Christmas - A time for "tremendous trifles," and truces?

by DR. ROBIN MCFEE December 26, 2016

"Tremendous trifles" - what a great description of the magic Christmas can impart on all of us - from children to adults, if we, like kids, can leave ourselves open to being childlike in our pleasure taking to enjoy the little things. Alas, we often take for granted some of the beauty and joyful experiences that come our way, instead of being grateful for these gentle intrusions. Like taking the time to appreciate how Christmas lights reflect in a puddle left by melting snow, or the sound of Christmas carols in the mall, or the peel of bells by a Salvation Army red kettle worker, or watching kids' faces lighting up and getting excited at the mere mention of Santa, or the ability to give a kind word if not a coffee and donut to the street corner beggar.

In a recent foray into one of Martin Gardener's books, I came across an interesting chapter about "The Ball and the Cross" written by GK Chesterton. Gardner discusses some insights by John Wren Lewis - one of several essayists who wrote about GK Chesterton's work. In his assessment of "Joy without a cause," Wren Lewis notes that one of Chesterton's favorite themes is we are surrounded by "tremendous trifles" - little things that ought to give us pleasure and for which we should be grateful.

I think of tremendous trifles as little ones tugging on our sleeves to catch snowflakes on tongues, making snow angels, or looking at storefront displays, deriving an innocent joy just for the sake of it all. The wonder and awe of Christmas is something that never seems to elude children, as their anticipation seems to fuel them far beyond what one would expect from some toys. The Season takes hold of children's' imaginations in a way we may miss.

For those accustomed to my articles on Iran's nukes, or Israel and the Middle East, you are probably wondering if I hit the egg nog a bit early this year, and in too large a quantity! And you are probably thinking ‘nice imagery Robin' and you are probably countering my thoughts with..."this is easier said than done Doc!"

I won't argue that for adults with responsibilities, enjoying "tremendous trifles" can be a challenge. Christmas is a frenetic time of year - especially in the Northeast where weather can be unpredictable - for New Englanders snow is nice if you have 4-wheel drive or eight reindeer pulling your sleigh, but otherwise it is a pain to work and shop in. Then there is the inevitable pushing, shoving, parking, and traffic and well the stress can be great even if you earn a decent living. For those struggling financially, Christmas underscores the needs and privations.

Perhaps all those are fair points, but it is not a zero sum game, and I would suspect, actually I would prescribe taking a moment to enjoy the tremendous trifles that are everywhere. From nature to being with our friends and family, this time of year above all should serve as a reminder to benefit without profit.

I certainly agree, adults have more on our minds than do kids. We seemingly have to get caught up in craziness of last minute shopping, (and the bills we are generating), or the insanity of a world where Christians can be killed from Germany to the Middle East for being in a church or Christmas shopping. To be sure, it is easier to enjoy truces between sibling rivals, and schoolyard competitors, or take pleasure in tremendous trifles when we are young and have far less awareness of global events, or responsibilities for happiness other than our own.

This week saw another example of deadly attacks against innocents - something that has not changed in 2000 years since the birth of Jesus and beforehand.

Add to that Americans are still engaged in the post-election fractiousness that can only be rivaled by Grinches and stereotypical high school "mean girls."

Globally the Middle East - the place of Christ's birth - is a mess, and internationally cultures are clashing at a time when opportunities abound, people seem to focus on the wrong things. Our inner cities are war zones, and Santa doesn't know whether to wear Kevlar TM or change the official language in his village to Russian. The next star in the East may come from an Iranian nuke, and the Via Dolorosa, Little Town of Bethlehem and countless cherished sites in Jerusalem, Turkey and the region may cease to exist if terrorists decide to be more destructive than they already are. 

And, our veterans are a fast growing homeless population, or ignored by the VA, and our active duty service members are in Afghanistan and the Gulf Region; the only cross they see is a target on their collective backs, instead of a religious symbol.

Fighting an adversary that does not share our Christian heritage, that is in fact at war with Christianity, certainly makes it near impossible to expect, let alone try to obtain some sort of Christmas truce, as occurred in WWI and WWII. If anything, one can probably expect more attacks against our faithful and our troops from Europe to the Gulf.

But we can implement truces in our own lives and circles of influence. 

Against this backdrop, we can still benefit from Christmas.

For most of us who live between extravagance and deprivation this time of year should serve as a reminder that we are blessed in so many ways. 

Deriving good without profit

Recently I attended a stirring rendition of A Christmas Carol performed as a one-man show by Gerald Dickens - Charles Dickens' great great grandson. My friends and I attend annually, and though I have heard this story since my parents first read it to my cousins and me as toddlers, there always seems to be something "new" that captures the mind and heart. This year "Fred" seemed to ‘spoke' to me. Let me share one of his most insightful comments from the book:

"There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say....Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time, when it has come round apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from tat as a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know if, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore uncle (Scrooge), though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"

Sometimes we should allow ourselves to take time to derive good without expecting to profit in mere mortal ways, and to allow ourselves to be transported to a place of our higher angels.

To be sure, one could argue I have idealized Christmas, perhaps with a little help from Dickens, or memories from childhood. Fair enough, and probably true. But isn't it the very act of idealism, buttressed by some pragma, that moves us forward? That strengthens us for the real challenges we must address the rest of the year? I consider Christmas the time to recharge so I can push forward with extra energy to tackle the tasks of the New Year. How about you?

Clearly we have problems in this nation, and, to go "Dickens" on you, Christmas is the time of year when want is keenly felt. In fact, this time of year can place a stark comparator to the world we hope to have, and the one we live in. However, in spite of the challenges, most of us have something (living in the greatest nation, having a home, a job, the ability to read and think and see), and someone for which to be grateful, and with whom to share "tremendous trifles."

It has been said if you want to forget your troubles, help someone with theirs. Scrooge found that out after a lengthy night of ghostly visits, and specter inspired introspection.

Rich or poor or somewhere in between, politically connected or isolated, educated or learned, we can create our own truce even if that is elusive in the larger world. We can focus for these next few hours on what the Season means - laying down the Red or Blue team posters bringing a true with a family member or friend who is against your candidate, or taking time out to enjoy the moment, however brief, or pop into a house of worship to remind what the day really signifies, or focusing less on why someone is down on their luck, and providing some help to them anyway, or handing a token gift of coffee, a muffin, candy cane or friendly handshake of thanks to a serviceman or woman, firefighter, police officer, nurse, medic or other person working on Christmas - keeping watch while we get to celebrate. Or inviting someone outside your faith to experience what Christmas means and does to its adherents as a sign of hospitality. Or volunteer at a soup kitchen, or go caroling at a nursing home. Or just making a snow angel with the kids for the pure sense of doing it, or take a drive through places decorated magically just to see the lights. Even if you do it the 26th or 27th, you have 12 days of Christmas!

In spite of all the challenges in the world, for this one brief Season, this brief time, we can still enjoy, and share in the "tremendous trifles" and Christmas truces so necessary in our community and the world. 

Wishing you and yours a Merry Christmas.

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Dr. Robin McFee, MPH, FACPM, FAACT, is a physician, and clinical toxicologist. As medical director of Threat Science - and nationally recognized expert in WMD preparedness, she consults with government agencies, corporations and the media. Dr. McFee is the former director of the Center for Bioterrorism Preparedness (CB PREP) and bioweapons - WMD adviser to the Domestic Security Task Force, the former chair of the Global Terrorism Council of ASIS International, and a member of the US Counterterrorism Advisory Team. She has coauthored two books: Toxico-Terrorism by McGraw Hill and The Handbook of Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Agents, published by Informa/CRC Press    


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