I wished [….] a ‘happy new year’ the other day, and he looked at me as if I was mad. I don’t expect anything new, he said, and I don’t expect anything happy. That was a bit of a damp squib. I'd love to be able to say something to cheer him up, but he knows so much about politics that he wins every argument. Is there in fact anything you could say to him, or are words a waste of time? It was a bad way to begin the year. And by the way, Donagh, happy new year! Caoimhe
Thank you, Caoimhe! And I agree, it was a bad way to start a new year, or anything whatsoever. If we exclude the possibility of being pleasantly surprised, we are bedding down into misery. That's one of our freedoms, I suppose, but sadly it’s an infectious disease. I hope you didn’t catch it.
It’s possible, I'm sure, to be miserable and not to spread it around. I knew a man, years ago, who suffered a lot, but never lost his humour. When I asked him one day how he was, he replied, “Miserable – but I'm enjoying it!” He was good company even when he was feeling miserable. That combination is possible. I know it because I knew him. People who spread their misery around should try their hand at hibernation. Recommend it to your friend and assure him that this is the right country for it: the Latin name for Ireland is ‘Hibernia’, which means ‘the land of winter’.
I have another helpful suggestion! Ask him to consider the word ‘happy’. It has the same origin as the word ‘happen’. Happiness happens. It can't really be planned, or predicted – and by the same token, neither can it be excluded. One fine day in 2019 he could make the shocking discovery that he is happy about something.
“There is nothing new under the sun,” said another unhappy man. He’s an Old Testament fictional character, known as Qoheleth, from a few centuries before Christ, but his thoughts would be very familiar to your friend. “All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun” (Qoheleth 1:8-9). It’s always a surprise to see how sure some people are about the future. What would Qoheleth say about those astronauts hopping around on the moon, if he were to see them? What would he think of your cell-phone, Caoimhe? And these technological miracles aren't the only new things in the world. He would have to exclude the New Testament too, for being new. St Paul’s view was more uplifting: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5.17).
The ego is always old. It is the story of what was. It is mostly the story of old hurts and evasions, all the things of my past that I perpetuate because I can't come to peace with them, all the feedback loops and obsessions and the bitter dregs of experience. It is a story I keep trying to edit, but can't, because it’s too late. It is madness to try to create an identity out of such rubble.
Our real identity lies in a deeper place. Our true nature – our ‘Christ-nature’, as we Christians can call it – is not found on the surface. It is glimpsed in the contemplative moment. It isn't a static condition; it is alive, it is being live-streamed moment by moment from God. This is the real source of newness.
It would be a wonderful thing, Caoimhe, if you could entice your friend to attend your meditation group. (Here I have to admit that I know you both.) His experience up to now could turn out to be the perfect preparation: people sometimes have to experience one extreme before they can see the other. Remind him that he’s much too young to exclude the possibility of real newness.
I hope it will be a wonderful year for you both.