Mind Matters: Faced with change and upheaval we can come back to our own humanity

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the very epicentre of Christianity
Paul Gaffney

AS CHRISTMAS approaches this year, we seem to have more uncertainty in our lives than we have had for some time. Whatever way Brexit and its various machinations works out for us, it seems that change, be it economic, political or social, is on the way.

While change for any of us is difficult, even change we want, more concerning perhaps has been the more obvious rearing up of older tribal divisions that many of the young people in our society may not have witnessed before. For those of us who remember the bad old days, this feels equally uncomfortable and depressing.

The Christmas story has in roots in Bethlehem, depicted in Christmas cards of old by the images of the wise men following a star to the simple stable where the nativity took place. A few years ago, I was asked to travel to Bethlehem to deliver a training course to people who work with traumatised children in Palestine. It was an incredible experience, not at all what I had expected and an assault on the senses.

On one hand there was the heavily fortified wall on the edge of the town, with soldiers patrolling on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. On the other, was Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, the very epicentre of Christianity and an oasis of calm and in the midst of a noisy town. All the while, there was a sense of volatility, an edge, a feeling that something could kick off at any time.

It felt strangely like growing up in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, familiar and yet anxiety provoking all at the same time.

What I most recall from that trip was the kindness of strangers, which is especially comforting when you are out of your comfort zone and uncertain of how to read what is taking place around you.

The taxi driver in Bethlehem who brought me back from buying some souvenirs on my final night refused to take any money for the fare, insisting that he was honoured to meet someone who would come from Ireland to try to help the mental health services for young people there.

One particular security guard in Tel Aviv airport took an interest in my growing up in Ireland and in my work, rather than forensically searching all my belongings potentially causing me to miss my flight back, a fate I had been warned about when leaving Palestine.

The learning for me as I reflect on this experience, is that all we can do in some situations is try to be kind to the next person, and accept that kindness whenever reciprocated to us, regardless of the source.

As in Palestine, which is sadly enflamed once again, for each of us individually now there can seem to be little that we can do in the face of more major issues and potential adjustments. There can be a sense of futility, of hopelessness, of asking what difference will I make with something much bigger like this happening?

But we can come back to our humanity, notice how we are more like our perceived foes than different from them and how, to a degree, we all depend on the goodwill and co-operation of other people, whether we acknowledge that or not.

Despite the politics of the moment or the history of the region, the Christmas message is more important than ever. I hope you have a safe and happy Christmas, and get some time to rest and relax. Best wishes to you and your family for 2019.

:: Dr Paul Gaffney is a senior clinical psychologist. His latest book, The Family Game: What Sport And Psychology Can Teach Us About Parenting, is available now.

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