The Christmas parable – a gift of empathy

The Christmas parable: Stories are a greater part of our lives than we imagine. Author Patrick Rothfuss wrote “Everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.” We all love stories. They are the moments we fondly remember from our childhood. As adults, we read books, watch movies, listen to the news, make plans, have conversations, share knowledge, consider life’s options, good, bad or funny, all stories.

The story that recalls Christ’s life is the parable of parables. When we pray we are speaking to God about our story.

Christmas parable - a tale for our time

Before the advent of written word one generation would pass on knowledge about important events that effected their community orally in the form of tales or song, as chronicles, folktales, myths or legends. Tales were also painted on cave walls. These tales reached people in faraway lands and people not then born.

Spiritual guidance would also be shared from one generation to the next in the same way, as parables. The biblical account about Jesus of Nazareth, from the nativity through to the ascension, has been described as the greatest story ever told. All stories have one or more outcomes that may be useful to all or to some.

Acclaimed clinical psychologist Jordan G. Peterson explained that our irresistible attraction to stories lies in the fact that they teach us about outcomes. They not only illustrate the possibility of many different outcomes, but also the actions and situations that produce those outcomes. Most, if not all, conversations are storytelling, one is either narrating or listening and all the variations in between.

Thoughts may also be seen as conversations, or internal dialogues, that one is having with oneself. The many thousands of these internal and external conversations, together with our collection of mental patterns and preferred outcomes, are the foundation for our actions and decisions. We are likely to give more importance to events we experienced directly rather than a description of events that was recounted to us by others.

There is a story behind everything. How a picture got on the wall, about the people in a waiting room, of a herd of elephants at a waterhole. We travel far and wide to hear the stories of other lands and cultures. We find such yarns entertaining and even adventurous. We read stories in order to experience new or comfortably familiar emotions. Stories are also a place we escape to when we feel that things are not right in our lives.

Some tales are true and others are designed to deceive. It may come as a surprise to some that too much of what science portrays as fact is actually based on unproven hypothesis and is more akin to a fiction novel.

Stories educate us and inform our judgement. Our judgement may not be right, and others may disagree with us, but it is ours. An understanding of narratives is a useful tool to have in our life’s toolbox. One of my favourite narratives is the Christmas parable. It is the stuff of campfires and brotherhood, of hope and dreams. It is not the only inspirational spiritual story, but it is ours. To my mind the core message of this tale is one of empathy, the ability to identify with what you see. Around the same time period of Christ’s presence on earth similar realisations were manifesting in Asia in the shape of the Buddha of Compassion. Empathy leads to compassion, from which wisdom develops. Wisdom then tempers compassion.

Christmas parable - a tale for our time

The Christmas parable is a tale for all time, told simply. A child is born to loving parents of modest means. They lived at a time of dictatorship and danger was everywhere. Life was hard. As the child grew, he manifested his divine heritage. He was not afraid to look. Like the Buddha, five hundred years before, he empathised with the suffering of humanity and preached to his followers how they could lift themselves out of their wretchedness. He thought them how each one of them could be like him, no different, by following the path he was laying out before them. No mediation from priesthood was necessary. The politicians and the religious leaders of the day saw him as a threat. He was betrayed, imprisoned and tortured. Following a mockery of a trial he was condemned to death by being nailed to a cross until he died. When all appeared to be lost he rose from the dead and returned to the divine fields of being.

Irrespective of the historical events the power of the message comes from the story and this is why it survived for two millennia and continues to inspire. All beings can relate directly to the narrative of this parable as we are all born, live our lives with ups and downs, joys and sorrows. At the end we all return whence we came. The outcome of the story is enlightenment (I prefer this term to ‘salvation’). The immediate gain is hope. Christ and his teachings are the way from suffering to enlightenment. It is a roadmap.

In our societies, when the Christmas season begins the change is tangible. People become more empathic. We have more time for each other, more time for family and friends, more time to listen and more time to care. We laugh more easily and are generally more agreeable. Hope is everywhere. This is not coincidental.

The birth of Christ presents the gift of empathy, what you do with it is up to you.

This article was published in the Sunday Times of Malta – A Tale for Our time – on the 25th December 2022

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