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Wishes at Christmas

December 25, 2010

It’s customary among people of all faiths to wish each other happiness at special times of the year. And in that spirit I wish all my friends – Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and agnostics – many moments of happiness at this time of year.

I say “moments” because happiness exists on many levels. Happiness can be sense of deep contentment that is unaffected by seasons, festivals and other transitory states that move across the passage of time. It can also be the oblivion of ecstasy – a moment when we forget ourselves in a contemplative state, or when we are doing something that temporarily obliterates the conscious mind. Moments that we only recognize as happy when they’re over.

Happiness can also come in short bursts of pleasure – a child receiving a gift at Christmas, an unexpected visit, a hug from an old friend. It’s that kind of happiness that we typically experience at festivals, both secular and religious – Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, Eid-al-Fitr, birthdays and other anniversaries.

If we stop to think about it, the kind of happiness we wish others for the new year is of a different kind. Fulfilled ambitions, resolution of long-standing problems, advancement to that state of deep contentment.

And at this time of the year, it’s those altered states that I wish for. For people I know and love who have had a hard time to see better times. For people I don’t know whose suffering radiates beyond their personal pain and contributes to a human climate of frustration, hatred and despair.

One could wish for many things. Yesterday I listened to a radio interview with Oleg Gordievsky, a Russian KGB officer who for many years was an agent of Great Britain. Twenty years after Gordievsky finally defected to the West, the BBC asked various commentators to assess the impact of the information he regularly provided to the spymasters. A senior diplomat commented that the most important contribution Gordievsky made was to reveal that in the early 1980’s the Soviet Politburo was terrified that the West was planning a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the Soviet Union.

That information prompted President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher to tone down their antagonistic rhetoric (“Empire of Evil” and so forth) and embark on confidence-building measures designed to assure the Soviet leaders that the West had no such intentions. From that point, relations between the West and the USSR started to improve. Reagan reached out to Gorbachev, and the two sides signed arms limitation treaties that slowly reduced the climate of fear that had dominated US/Soviet Union relations since 1945. The end of the Cold War was nigh. Fear subsided.

Today, regional and global fears abound. North and South Korea, India and Pakistan, Israel, Iran and their neighbours fear obliteration in a nuclear conflagration. The people and governments of the West fear terrorism and the corrosive effect of debt. They fear economic eclipse by the rising powers of the East. In the Arab world, governments and entrenched establishments fear loss of influence and personal power. They fear the dilution of traditional values and beliefs, and the marginalization of their language. Ordinary people across the world fear the effects of climate change, and the consequences of diminishing natural resources.

Some fears are well-founded. Others are the result of the failure of dialogue, in the inability of one party to understand the concerns of another. In some, fear has metastasized into a malignant hatred that will never be altered.

But so long as we recognize that in this world there is no such thing as ideal, no paradise, no utopia, we can wish that as individuals we can reach out in small ways to each other, and that our leaders have the wisdom to accept what can be achieved rather than founder on the dream of the perfect state.

Fear, not hatred, is the other side of love. And my wish for 2011 is that in ways big and small we can temper our fear with confidence and hope, and that those in pain will find at least some relief.

Am I stating the obvious? Of course I am. But it does no harm to remind ourselves from time to time, as Reagan and Gorbachev did, that the things we have in common are more important than those that divide us.

Love and best wishes to all.

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