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Celebrating the Holidays During our Dark Age
by Shepherd Bliss
November 25, 2004

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It’s Thanksgiving and I look forward to the holidays. But wait. I cannot get certain images out of my mind, try though I may. I see the documented 100,000 innocent Iraqis, mainly women and children, that America has recently killed. I see our soldiers torturing people. Whole towns, like Falluja, were destroyed, allegedly to save them. I am not too good at denial, even at this joyous time of year.

Then I remember the Nov. 2 elections and the American people’s apparent support for such war crimes. What to do? How to celebrate the birthday of the baby Jesus—the “Prince of Peace”—in such a time? I certainly do not feel like buying a lot of American-made goods and further fueling the war machine.

I feel ashamed, not just of our war-making government, but of a people so fearful that they would doom so many to death. What must it have been to be a German during the 1930s as Hitler, who was also elected, rose to power? Why didn’t more good Germans see what was happening earlier? Why weren’t they more active?

We Americans who love our country and its basic values of freedom, democracy, liberty and justice for all do have some things to be proud of during this Dark Age. Some Americans are sending “I’m sorry” letters to people in the world and setting up websites to apologize for the actions of our people on Nov. 2, in Iraq, and probably soon elsewhere in the world, including the possible use of nuclear weapons.

Dark clouds loom over America and threaten the rest of the globe. This article seeks to place our political moment within a larger cultural context. It offers excerpts from poems and focuses on the theme of living in a time of darkness.

A long-term perspective can help us endure the growing darkness. Martin Luther King, Jr., contends, “The arc of history is long, but it tends toward justice.” Such a perspective enables us to have our feelings about the state of America and the world and express them—grief, anger, despair, depression, disappointment, disillusionment, whatever.

We can also fill our lives with music, poetry, gardening, sex, hiking, dancing, the beach--the things that nourish us and give us joy, without loosing sight of the larger, evolving picture. It is a time for feeling, thinking, and some doing. But it is also a time for patient waiting and careful watching. “This, too, will surely pass,” according to a Buddhist teaching. 

America today has become like an animal in distress. More than three years after Sept. 11 America remains in shock, fear, and panic, striking out in vengeance, as if it were a wounded, cornered animal, desperately drawing blood. It reminds me of the neighbor’s dog who killed a few of the chickens on my farm and then kept returning for more. The wars that we have long exported finally came home Sept. 11, shattering our illusions of safety.

Vice-Mayor Larry Robinson of Sebastopol, California, suggests, “We must be hospice workers for the old story of domination.” We must help that story die. It is already having death spasms.

“We must be midwives to help birth a new story—one of partnership with each other, with other nations and cultures and with nature itself,” Robinson continues.

The old has to play itself out for us to move on. This is a work some of us have been preparing to do for much of our lives. We need something beyond the necessary political action. Brazilian educator Paulo Freire describes this as “cultural action,” which is based on deep reflection and can stimulate profound transformations.

The road ahead will be rough, during whatever limited time Bush is in office. Something is dying. Something else is struggling to be born. Birth is usually bloody. Something gets torn. The transition from the 20th into the 21st century will not be easy.

Many of us, including myself, feel defeated. Defeat can be a great teacher. Every no is a yes. Failure can be more instructive than success. Victory can be more problematic than loss. The victorious often get inflated.

As the old saying goes, “Pride precedes a fall.” As I watch Republicans gloat, I consider it an indication of their pending fall.

The German-speaking poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes the following about defeat,

“I can tell by the way the trees beat, after so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes that a storm is coming… The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on… This is how we grow: by being defeated, decisively…”

Basically, what we have in America today--and can expect more of--is the suppression of voting, the repression of our rights, and the oppression of Iraqis and other people of color.

The late American Poet Theodore Roethke starts his poem “In a Dark Time,”

“In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the deepening wood—
A lord of nature weeping in a tree.”

There are things about America that too many of us have denied for too long, stuffing them into a “shadow.” Now they are catching up with us. It is time to open our eyes and wake up. That “lord of nature” is the one whom I want us to listen to. Rather than focus on Bush, we could hold up a mirror to understand what this election says to us about America and its people.

We could follow Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry’s words about how to survive in a dark time. It is not with false hope. Berry writes,

“To go in the dark with a light
is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark.
Go without sight…
And know that the dark, too,
Blooms and sings,
And is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”

We are entering a Dark Age—a time of endarkenment, which may eventually lead to enlightenment. Much can be revealed to us in the darkness about reality and our real selves that can guide us into a better future.

The American People have failed the world in our historic responsibility to clean up our house and defend the authentic American values of freedom, democracy, liberty and justice for all. Instead, too many of us acted out of fear in the recent election.

William Stafford ends a poem as follows: “ is important that awake people be awake… the darkness around us is deep.”

It is too easy to blame the Bush team. It is harder to hold up a mirror to ourselves and ask, “What went wrong?” Americans are simply too privileged. We derive too many benefits from the Empire to strike back against it. It’s now up to the other peoples of the world to redeem us.

Bush has made a plea for us to unite with him. I also want unity—but not with Bush—rather with the world. The U.S. is on a collision course, not only with Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, but with the world itself. America has become the most hated country on Earth and Bush is one of the most hated leaders. Now is not the time to rally around the Bush agenda.

We have allowed a narrow-minded Christianity--which ignores Jesus as the Prince of Peace -- to hijack our nation and continue the fight that was lost in the Civil War, the Vietnam War, and is now being lost in Iraq against another people of color. They lost the first two, and it may eventually be Strike Three.

I want to appeal against what could be called false hope or “perilous optimism,” which refuses to look at the darkness. Some people longing for the light says things like, “Oh, it won’t be so bad’ or “Don’t worry so much.” This is dangerous thinking.

I lived in Chile during the Allende government, when on Sept. 11, 1973. The CIA and Henry Kissinger orchestrated the assassination of the democratically elected Pres. Allende and began an assault that killed many Chileans. They would do that here.

Chileans were naïve and could not imagine the brutality that would follow. History is full of dead people as a result of perilous optimism. The Jews who left Germany and elsewhere in Europe ahead of the holocaust survived. The others perished—millions of them, with their false hope.

We could replace “Perilous Optimism” with what historian Howard Zinn describes in a post-election article as “The Optimism of Uncertainty.” He reminds us, “What leaps out from the history of the last 100 years is its utter unpredictability.” He makes a convincing case from the fall of the Russian Czar to other “huge surprises” of the 20th century.

Here in Hawai’i we have a lot to be thankful for. Fear mongering did not work here on Nov. 2. Some of the lying voting machines that were going to be used were discarded. Our voters were not intimidated and suppressed, as they were in Florida, Ohio, and elsewhere on the more fearful mainland.

I want to leave you with an excerpt from the poem “Listen” by an elder, W.S. Merwin, who has lived in Hawaii for decades and captures our mahalo feeling.

“with the night falling we are saying thank you…
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you

…remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
and our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you…
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is.”

We need to be able to look realistically at the darkness, cope with it, and continue to live joyously.

Dr. Shepherd Bliss lives in an ohia-lehua forest and teaches Communication at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo and the Hawai’i Community College. He can be reached at:

Other Articles by Shepherd Bliss

* Michael Moore’s Flaming Thunderbolt