The Way I See It

Embracing inner imperfections in a damaged world

After the battering inflicted by the pandemic, we should make use of the brokenness as seedbed for a new life

One of a few Christmas stalls allowed to open in Berlin as Germany battles a surge in Covid-19 cases.
One of a few Christmas stalls allowed to open in Berlin as Germany battles a surge in Covid-19 cases.PHOTO: AFP

As we approach the end of this extraordinary pandemic year, many people's evaluation of the past 12 months will be suffused by all they may have lost, endured or been denied. Yet, there can be few of us who have not absorbed new learnings or discovered new depths within ourselves.

For most of us, this year has clarified how much more important emotional connections are in our lives than material things.

Under the shadow of Covid-19, people everywhere have recognised afresh our sameness and oneness, and found life the fuller for this shift in ourselves.

One of the most touching and remarkable incidences of connecting with our common humanity was seen in World War I, in the face of death.

In those far-off days, warfare was of the old-fashioned kind, where men confronted each other with guns and infantry advances. Stretched across Europe in the freezing cold, French, German, Russian and British troops lined up in trenches opposite each other with orders to kill. A narrow strip of no-man's land lay between their respective trenches.

Towards the end of 1914, Pope Benedict XV suggested a truce over Christmas between the warring sides. "Let the guns fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang," he pleaded. This request was refused by the opposing governments. The men in the trenches thought differently and, in quiet sectors along the Western Front, unobtrusively initiated their own spontaneous truces.

Late on that Christmas Eve of 1914, soldiers in the British trenches heard the German soldiers singing Christmas carols. Looking over the top of their foxhole, they saw lanterns and the branches of fir trees decorating the German dugout.

Christmas greetings were shouted between trenches, and the British too began to sing carols. Eventually, men from both sides climbed out of their wet bunkers to greet each other in no-man's land, exchanging small gifts of food and tobacco, or souvenirs of buttons and hats.

The proximity of the trenches made it easy for the soldiers to communicate and arrange truces of their own. Even earlier than Christmas, a German surgeon had recorded a spontaneous truce each evening for both sides to recover bodies for burial. Having met, shaken hands and smoked together, it was then difficult to return to the work of killing.

In a letter published in the Daily Mail in 1915, one British soldier, looking back on mingling with the enemy, wrote: "What an earth are we doing here fighting them… We cannot shoot them in cold blood… I cannot see how we can get them to return to business."

This finding of a common humanity was not to the liking of superior officers on either side.

Charles de Gaulle, a decorated officer of World War 1 and later president of France, wrote of the "lamentable" desire of French infantrymen to leave the enemy in peace. Another commander, Victor d'Urbal, wrote of the "unfortunate consequences" when men "become familiar with their neighbours".

Connect, not kill

At the close of 2020, in a world beset with fear, rabid inequality and brutal discrimination, it is uplifting to know that left to their own devices, people will more readily connect than kill.

The Christmas truce of 1914, more than 100 years ago this December, reveals a timeless truth - that individuals, even in the most extreme conditions, can still find the courage to listen to the voice of wholeness within themselves and reject the fragmentation around them.

American author and educator Parker Palmer, founder of the Centre for Courage and Renewal in South Carolina, seeks ways to create a more just and compassionate world. In his book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life, he writes of what is possible if we reject our stance of fear, the root of our dividedness.

"Afraid that our inner light will be extinguished or our inner darkness exposed, we hide our true identities from each other. In the process, we become separated from our own souls. We end up living divided lives, so far removed from the truth we hold within that we cannot know the integrity that comes from being what we are."

Wholeness does not mean perfection, but embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.

Buddhism recognises this truth in its acceptance of life's transience and imperfection. Nowhere is this doctrine better embraced than in the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which venerates the patina of age upon objects, the beauty of the flawed.

Often, when mending broken ceramics, the Japanese aggrandised the damage by filling the cracks with gold. The suffering of impairment, and the honesty of age and use, illuminate an object's soul. The nobility of failure is similarly embraced in Japan.

The failed hero who pits himself against the odds and loses is honoured as much as the conquering hero.

Stories of compassion

Our world is a damaged place at the moment. Although our year of Covid-19 is ending, our pandemic journey is far from over. Our imperfections are on view for all to see, yet the essential integrity of human nature has also been revealed in multiple stories of compassion and altruism.

Besides the dedicated selflessness of healthcare workers, neighbours are looking out for each other in a new way, spontaneous people's initiatives have sprung up worldwide to help those facing hardship. In Singapore, the kampung spirit has returned, and even small children are giving their red packets of money to those in need.

Our modern culture stresses an outer knowledge that empowers us to operate effectively in the world. Knowledge of our inner selves is less encouraged.

We are so often filled with dissatisfaction and the need for more - material possessions, social status, pleasure. Yet, consciousness and choice are always with us.

This strange year has forced us all to look within and recognise anew the unseen; feelings, intuition, emotions, values, beliefs, and our purpose in life.

A nameless presence within us all, so often hidden or forgotten by our everyday selves, provides calm and resilience in the face of adversity, if we will but acknowledge it.

On Christmas Eve of 1914, amid the devastation of war and a spontaneous ceasefire, men now lost to history made the choice to look within and recognise their quintessential nature.

Today, the destruction wrought by our modern-day pandemic offers that eternal choice to us once more. In Palmer's words, embracing our brokenness gives hope that human wholeness need not be a utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.

• Meira Chand is the author of nine novels, whose themes examine the conflict of cultures and the search for identity.