Or whatever donkey you celebrate
Today is Christmas Day, which means a lot to a lot of people, and little or nothing to many more. In the United States, it has been the dominant holiday for many years, imported from England. Although there is thankfully now recognition of other holidays - even no holiday - many have said Christmas remains the main holiday this time of year. And there is plenty of evidence of that.
I am sure it feels strange to others who celebrate a different winter solstice-related holiday to be surrounded by so much Christmas themed stuff. It is everywhere, and I am sure it can be oppressive. As someone who celebrates Christmas, it is mostly invisible to me - part of the wallpaper this time of year. But I know that is just the privileged societal position I have, and I am sure it is not that way for many, many others. And of course this time of year can be very painful for those who have lost loved ones, and this is particularly acute this year.
The Christmas story is a beautiful, comforting, and compelling one - but it has always been about the music for me. This is because I was parked in a church boarding school for singers at the age of 9. My mother did this because I was tossed out of 4th grade and she did not know what else to do. She discovered I could sing, and knew about this church school through her father (who was a priest) and much of it was subsidized because we sang for our education (so she could afford it). And they worked us hard in exchange. We sang about 13-14 hours per week, a repertory of over 400 pieces of music. The music education was amazing, but the school part was not so great. I flunked 8th grade Math and English when I left, and had to make both up the following summer.
Understandably, the music I sang was then, and is now, deeply ingrained in me. Some of it is extraordinarily beautiful, and several hundred years old. There is something to be said for being part of producing a beautiful sound at a young age using a practice that has gone on, unbroken, for hundreds of years. This foundation gave me an advantage, but was also an albatross. In today’s secular society, what I did as a child is perceived as very odd. Nerdy. Weird. Out of time. And in many ways, it was all of those. I learned not to speak of it to my peers. But my parents had divorced, my mother had gone back into the workforce (underemployed, and of course underpaid even at that). She had three young children and did not really know what else to do with me.
So it was odd, and over the years I considered running from it, but ultimately I came to believe it is a blessing to have some belief system. The problem comes when people who hold any one of them think theirs is better than any other one.
Every morning, I read the day’s “Daily Meditation” from a book by Deng Ming-Dao: 365 TAO. I have done this for more than 20 years (now using my third copy of the book). On November 29 every year, the daily meditation addresses this point directly:
Dismount your Donkey at the Summit
Some places in this word are very hard to climb, and people use animals. Each person can only ride one, and each animal might have a different name. The riders go up the trail in different orders, and they discuss their varying opinions about their experiences. They may even have conflicting opinions: One traveler may think the trip thrilling, another may find it terrifying, and a third may find it banal.
At the summit all the travelers stand in the same place. Each of them has the same chance to view the same vistas. We all travel the same path. The donkeys are the various doctrines that each of us embraces. What does it matter which doctrine we embrace as long as it leads us to the summit? Your donkey might be a Zen donkey, mine might be a Tao donkey. There are Christian, Islamic, Jewish, and even Agnostic donkeys. All lead to the same place. Why poke fun at others over the name of their donkey? Aren’t you riding one yourself?
As teachers, we must be scrupulously respectful of the backgrounds of our students in every way, including and perhaps especially this one. What they bring to our classrooms may be challenging sometimes, but is almost always beautiful and important. It was heartening to me when I saw my own children - who were in public school for K through 12 - exposed to many other faith practices through various celebrations during the school year. I did not get the advantage of that.
May all of our students know that they are - like everyone else - riding a donkey to the summit, and that they should never make fun of anyone else’s donkey, but rather seek to learn from other traditions.
Next week: The Year in Review!
Letters of Recommendation
Having revealed (above) that I have read a page of the same book every day for 20 years… I should probably include it my recommendations! It contains 365 daily Taoist-inflected meditations on life. You’ll find it here on Amazon.*
*BTW, I do not use affiliate links in my newsletters. Maybe someday I will, but at least this year, I have not.
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from Niccolò Machiavelli, the Italian author and philosopher who lived during the Renaissance:
There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit from the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit from the new order. This lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries and partly from the incredulity of mankind who do not truly believe in anything new, until they have had actual experience of it.