Stephen Williams: The older we get, the more we are forced to recognize that almost none of the years we have ever lived have progressed as we anticipated.
I’m sitting here in the waning minutes of the first day of the New Year, taking in the light from the Christmas tree that will too soon find its way back into the basement to remain for another eleven long months. I find myself wishing that the magic of Christmas would stick around for the whole year; moreover, to be honest, I am still trying too hard to process the many thoughts that were brought to my mind during the Advent season to be able to fully cast my vision forward to 2016. However, I cannot help but wonder if the beginning of the new year is the time where all of the significance of Christ’s first Advent becomes most applicable to our present lives.
For myself, I begin this trip around the sun with my heart heavy from the memories of the last, and much of this heaviness is not the result of darkness or tragedy; rather, it is the weight of having witnessed beautiful things. How I wish that everyone facing 2016 could be privileged with such a burden; I do not understand why I, of all people, have been spared the heartbreaks and the tragedies that have befallen many of my friends over the course of the past twelve months.
My TV and my iPhone like to tell me that the prevailing sentiment toward January 1st is one of optimism and often raucous celebration, but somehow my screen fails to mention those folk who look toward the coming of another year with a much different expression written across their hearts – an expression not unlike that of one staring into a yawning abyss. Folk like the man telling my coworker today about his son’s suicide several weeks ago, or the young mother who has done nothing but watch her fragile newborn daughter spend weeks in the NICU fighting for her life. There is not much “optimism” in situations like these, nor should there be, I think. At least not any of the cheap kind of optimism that either drinks itself into so-called “positive thinking” or expects the wounds of Adam’s race to be healed in an instant when we have not yet come into the Better Country.
No, 2016 does not hold an infinite promise of happiness for many of our fellow pilgrims, and to be honest, it does not hold that promise for any of us. We all know this; however, I think many of us are too afraid to admit that our expressions of optimism and our “celebrations” at midnight are not really celebrations at all. I wonder if they are more often covers for the fact that we are still trying to make sense of our past while being terrified of what could come in our future. And indeed, though some of our hopes for the coming days may be justifiably high, the older we get, the more we are forced to recognize that almost none of the years we have ever lived have progressed as we anticipated; moreover, that they have often progressed in ways that have added to the weight upon our shoulders, not diminished it. In short, the dawning of a new year forces us to consider our own personal histories and to come to grips with the fact that despite having recently celebrated a season of waiting (and its conclusion), we still find ourselves waiting for another Day, another Advent, another Christmas after which there will be no long winter.
It is against the backdrop of these reflections – and questions – about our human history that I find myself reaching for the wise words of an old friend. J.R.R. Tolkien needs no introduction, but perhaps these two passages do, so bear with me. The first may be familiar to some; the second, while more obscure, clarifies the first in breathtaking fashion. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien quietly reveals his historical vision through the words the immortal elf Galadriel, who, speaking of her husband Celeborn, makes this observation about their time in Middle Earth: “Together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”
Anyone who has read Tolkien will know that he is no pessimist, so why would he use a phrase like “fought the long defeat” when the word “defeat” carries with it an almost automatic connotation of hopelessness? Time and space and my own poor intellectual giftings prohibit me from giving these words the treatment they are due, but thankfully, perhaps Tolkien answers the question himself in a parallel passage buried deep in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. Aragorn, the King Ellesar, having come to the end of a long reign of peace and renewal, speaks tenderly from his deathbed to his queen, Arwen, of their imminent parting; indeed, these are his last recorded words to her: “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”
This eminently poignant scene deserves far more readership than it likely receives, for in a mere two sentences it addresses the very real sorrows of this present life while still communicating the hope that lies in the next. Tolkien wisely recognized that no lot in this old world would ever leave us wishing to stay here; he recognized that no lot would prevent us from facing the agonizing wait appointed to those who are on a pilgrimage to a land beyond circles of their current existence.
In sorrow, many of us have already gone, and in sorrow, all of us will eventually go, whether in 2016 or in the years to follow. We cannot sugarcoat this reality, nor should we try – to do so would be dishonest, for there are no quick fixes to be found in a world that will not last. Life as we currently know it will not end in “victory”, and this can be a hard truth to swallow when cultural norms insist upon us “winning” at everything. But we who celebrate the first Advent need not go forward in despair, in this or in any other year. It was that first Advent which made it possible for us to hope for a second Advent, the final Advent, which will redeem all of our memories, our lifetimes of waiting, and every last one of our defeats.
Stephen Williams is a graduate of Patrick Henry College and lives in Roanoke, Virginia.