This piece was originally posted on the Hand in Hand website for December 9th, 2013.
A Choice at Christmas
‘The most wonderful time of the year’… Well, so the song says, anyway. But of course in the real world, like most things, it’s good for some people. For others? Depending on circumstances, perhaps not so much. To use that hoary old cliché, you will probably get out of it something approximating what you put into it. I’ve never been overly full of the Christmas spirit myself, but this year I’ve made the choice of deciding to enjoy it as much as I’m able.
You see, I’ve been thinking a lot about choices lately. Choices and, almost as if the two have come along together, an old acquaintance from many years ago—a man called Jonathan Philbin Bowman.
Now I say ‘acquaintance’ because, although he and I had gotten to know each other reasonably well, we weren’t at the stage where you would have called us friends. And there’s a word that is increasingly misused anyway. I’ve heard of people having 300 friends on Facebook; I’ve heard of people who invite 200 of their ‘closest friends’ to their weddings. All I can say is that I’m happy for them: I suppose that I have perhaps five—five, tops—who have known me through thick-and-thin. Friends who I have helped out when I’ve been in the position to; and who have helped me out in the last couple of years after I hit rough times. Personally I count myself lucky to have that many.
I suspect that Jonathan Philbin Bowman didn’t make friends easily; I also suspect that when he did, they stayed friends. He was a journalist and TV personality who could completely alienate readers and viewers with his brash, loud and cock-sure manner. (Especially compared to his father, the quiet and restrained historian and then-RTE broadcaster John Bowman.) Yet, when you took the time to listen to him or were able to get to know him there was a thoughtful, introspective and kind man in there amongst the mass of contradictions. And it was only later that I found out from his mother, Dr. Eimer Philbin Bowman, how depressive his moods could get.
I generally disagreed with him and his normally sunny outlook on the world. I didn’t particularly see the world in those primary-coloured tones; and a lot of what he came out with would irritate me intensely.
I recall one morning he was on the radio and holding forth on the subject of ‘choices’. According to Jonathan, a person always had a choice. To me this was the most blatantly stupid, foolish nonsense of all. Later that day I tackled him on it, talking of how some people were products of their environment; and somehow it developed into the old Nature versus Nurture argument. It was hard to win an argument with Jonathan, though. He was, if anything, an intellectual; and of course he could talk much louder than you could!
Exasperated, I told him that I had turned the radio off in a temper when he started on about how even Jesus Christ had a choice when he was nailed up and left hanging from a wooden cross. I’m not a religious man but at that point in history, as far as I was concerned, choices had gone out the window.
“Of course Christ had a choice”, said Jonathan. “He had the choice to curse his tormentors or to forgive them. It might be one of the most important choices any of us ever have.”
I’ve found myself thinking about those words quite often through the years. They make more sense than they did, although I would still have problems with them.
I never did have a chance to pursue the conversation with him, though. Jonathan fell down the stairs of his flat on March 3, 2000 and bled to death after a blow to the head. It was just one of those senseless things, really. He was 31.
His parents, John and Eimer, had the choice of whether to be angry or to try to accept this sheer, pointless-seeming and random event that Fate had landed on them. John chose to produce a beautiful hardback book that was simply called Jonathan, which was a compilation of reminiscences from those who knew him.
Both of his parents chose to make his funeral a genuine celebration of a ridiculously short but very intense life. Instead of a closing hymn, they chose to play Jonathan’s favourite song, one which summed up his general attitude—Monty Python’s Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.
Not everyone will have a reason to feel that this Christmas is one worth celebrating. That will be true for several of the families that are connected with Hand in Hand. And that is a choice that is theirs to make. We here in the office, however, hope that you do make the choice to at least give it a try.
And we wish each and every one of you a very, very Merry and Loving Christmas, no matter your circumstances or what way you spend the day!