Archive | December, 2016

Survive and Advance: Ode to a New Year of Living Dangerously, Dr. Robert Zuber

31 Dec

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Every year in the United States, we witness a March sports ritual that many refer to as “madness” — a College basketball tournament to determine a “national champion.”

The tournament itself is relentless – many close games that push athletes (and their fans) to the brink of anxiety and exhaustion.  Teams don’t worry about margins of victory; merely about guaranteeing the circumstances that allow them to play again and hopefully play better.  “Survive and advance.”

As we enter 2017, this basketball mantra seems apt for a world that has endured many shocks –more than a few self-inflicted – and in which we should mostly be grateful for any opportunity to “advance” and improve.

It’s not as though 2016 was without its value:  At a personal level, couples fell in love or welcomed babies into the world; others were given a new chance for life by skilled surgeons or by compassionate citizens welcoming persons fleeing conflict.  Still others inched closer to their educational or professional dreams which, we can only hope, have positive implications for societies beyond the limits of self-interest.

At the levels of national and UN multi-lateral policy, 2016 had its own hopeful moments, including broad international attention on the dimensions of oceans governance; regulations to better protect the rights and safety millions of displaced persons; renewed commitments to solve data and funding obstacles to fulfillment of the 2030 development goals; good-faith efforts to address the security and health needs of persons victimized by ISIL and other insurgencies in places like Fallujah; agreements and elections that hold out the promise of lasting peace in places like Somalia, Lebanon and especially Colombia; shifts in the framework for humanitarian assistance that nuance responses to need with commitments to building more resilient communities.

But in other ways, we seem hell-bent to confirm the predictions of the famed physicist Stephen Hawking who has been making ever-more worrisome predictions about our planetary fate and our current, expanding universe of risk factors akin to dark, gathering clouds of an impending mega-storm.

We know the horrific settings that keep some of us up at night – Sana’a and Aleppo, Mosul and Juba.  We witness the populist movements that lash out at unresponsive elites.  We note with concern threats by states to modernize nuclear arsenals and cancel their reservations to serious multilateral discussions on climate health.  We can barely get some adversaries to sit and talk, let alone talk about pathways to peace.

For some time now, Hawking has urged some out-of-the-norm planning to address the long-term survival of our species but also shorter-term existential threats tied to what he often refers to as unresolved “human aggression.” Such a stubborn and deep-seated trait may have been indispensable in our earliest human iterations but has clearly outlived its survival value and now, in many and various forms, has inspired and manufactured new and multiple challenges to our very existence.

Unfortunately, modern iterations of human predation have taken more insidious forms, from the use of rape as a tactic in war to economic policies that deliberately ignore gross and growing inequalities in power and access. Hawking cites these and other threats, warning that “the frequency of such occasions is likely to increase in the future.” “We shall need great care and judgment to negotiate them all successfully,” he notes.

Care and judgment are not words that readily come to mind when describing our current political and economic circumstances.   If we are to do more than hide out from the worst “madness” of impending storms, more than merely hoping to survive the current shocks, we will need to care more and judge better to ensure we can “advance” together.

Collectively and individually, this means resisting the temptation to revert to our more predatory legacies.  It means being more vigilant about warnings of impending conflicts that at some future point we will lose the ability to halt.  It means committing to stay at the table of all discussions with implications for the global interest, even if they do not seem immediately germane to the national interest.  It means promoting accountabilities for values and not only for profits. And it means finding more effective ways and means to demilitarize – recognizing that the volume, sophistication and costs associated with weapons developed, manufactured, modernized, shipped abroad, and eventually leaked into unstable political environments constitutes a grave and un-affordable stain on our global prospects.

There is, for me and for many others, a melancholy that sets in as our western calendar flips: another year of life now fully “in the books;” a year we can never recapture and in which we cannot honestly say that we did enough to improve our collective condition, to seize our respective opportunities.

Some of us are simply running out of years.

Regardless of our mortality status, there are so many contributions in this New Year that we can all make in our various contexts, contributions that can help us collectively advance towards a future that is defined more by sustainable well-being and less by the species-implicated threats that so often consume our remaining reserves of compassion and kindness.  We all have opportunities to promote healthier, more connected living as a contribution to the world within and beyond local boundaries.

There may be no time better than this New Year’s weekend to embrace our piece of a collective resolve to locate and seize those opportunities.

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Away in a Manger:  The UN Sends a Christmas Message to the Displaced, Dr. Robert Zuber

24 Dec

It’s Christmas Eve morning and on a table near my computer is a dusty wooden crèche, a replicated space apparently large enough to hold a holy family, a couple of onlookers, a barn animal or two and some early-arriving dignitaries.  The crèche is guarded by a host of other creatures courtesy of my many trips abroad – a camel, a hippo and a variety of cats – lots of cats.  Atop the crèche is a cross tied together with palms from the previous Lenten Season – a reminder of where this particular birth, indeed all of our births are ultimately headed.

In part because we are so desperate for vindication of our optimisms, we have somehow managed to sentimentalize the manger event.  Oh sure it must have been cold.   And it really isn’t anyone’s fault that there was no room at the Inn.  And the travel to Bethlehem couldn’t have been THAT treacherous.  And the manger doesn’t appear to be THAT uncomfortable.

On an on it goes, trivializing the scene, apply the “Hollywood gloss” to the lives of persons who were in essence displaced.   Persons with few tangible assets.   Riding a donkey across treacherous pathways while coping with the uncertainties of an immanent birth event.   Fleeing violence and rumors of violence for a mostly uncertain future. Showing up at an Inn with a keeper who might well have had every reason to believe that a cleaner, higher class of folks would soon arrive to purchase what were probable (still) empty beds, folks ready to eat and drink without bringing with them the drama and danger that so often accompanied birth in those times.

The manger is not a film set, nor should it constitute an occasion to celebrate the holy baby while ignoring the unholy circumstances.  This was hard, harder than most everyone who will bother to read this missive will have ever experienced in their lives.

There are millions of people this very day who also find themselves on the treacherous move – fleeing conflict they had no role in starting, walking many miles without being able to quench their thirst or reassure their children, bearing the load of the most essential provisions while, in some instances, carrying within them the multiple “weights” of a new life.

For some, the actual manger from this Christmas season would be a relief:  a donkey to ride when feet are weary, some hay to provide minimal comfort while waiting along hostile borders, the hope that the same Innkeeper who provided the manger space might also show some mercy and provide nourishment for the new mother.

For many of the millions of displaced who are today on the move, such mercy is hard to come by.  Despite the misery of their often torturous journeys, they encounter closed and closely guarded borders, hostile governments and their electorates, and sometimes very cold hearts.

Too many of us nowadays wouldn’t let the displaced get close enough to knock on our doors let alone to direct them to a relatively comfortable and safe landing.

For all its warts, the UN is taking the needs of the displaced seriously.   The UN has not always done enough to stop the bombing or alleviate the poverty and drought that drive so much global displacement, but neither has it minimized the immense physical suffering and psychological trauma that displacement occasions.  In resolution after resolution, the UN has urgently highlighted the multiple burdens of displacement – from physical deprivation and hostile countries of destination to increased vulnerabilities to criminal elements, including and especially from traffickers.

One example of this concern was this week in a (much too small) UN conference room within which the UN Office for Drugs and Crimes’ 2016 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons was launched.  The event was sponsored by France and included UNODC’s director Yuri Fedotov and the Yazidi activist Nadia Murad.  It also included many states affirming commitments made in aforementioned resolutions and through the New York Declaration, a seminal document that outlines challenges and obligations towards the displaced by both states and diverse, additional stakeholders.

There were many insights from this event, one of which is that states are being more thoughtful about the particular vulnerabilities of displaced persons, especially to traffickers — those soliciting victims for forced prostitution, for child labor, even for child soldiers.  It was Mexico that most clearly acknowledged the preponderance of “push and pull” factors that promote displacement noting that, for all the attention that the displaced now rightly receive, both raw numbers and vulnerabilities continue to rise.  Such discouraging data, as noted by UNODC director Fedotov, must inspire us to more thoughtful, comprehensive commitments to the victims of displacement, including as noted by Iraq, commitments to help those seeking to return to their homes to do so.

One of the longer-term lessons of Christmas for me has been that in settings such as the manger-turned–delivery-room — settings of uncertainty and discomfort, settings of weariness and fear — a child can be born bearing the capacity to literally change the world.

On this Christmas, along many militarized borders, in many makeshift refugee camps, on many cramped crafts that are anything but sea-worthy, there are children about to leave the womb, children who also bear the capacity to make change and bring hope in our world.  Given the violent, melting state of our planet and the unbridled confusion and anger of so many of its current inhabitants, we would be foolish and grossly negligent to do anything other than welcome and nurture their promise.

Culture Club:  Non-Permanent Members Impact Security Council Customs, Dr. Robert Zuber

18 Dec

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Photo by Rick McKee

As 2016 draws to a close, we make our annual review of the Security Council’s “migrating” non-permanent members.  Soon we will lose Angola, Malaysia, New Zealand, Spain and Venezuela, while welcoming new members Bolivia, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Italy (in a shared-term arrangement with the Netherlands) and Sweden.

Each of these current non-permanent members has left their mark.  Spain has done noteworthy steering of Council activities on Iran and DPRK non-proliferation, and has worked closely with the Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate and other UN entities to develop thoughtful, full-spectrum responses to threats of violent extremism.  Angola for its part has been especially helpful in drawing the Council, the African Union and regional bodies into a more collaborative, trusting, functional partnership to promote peace and security across a still-unstable continent.  Malaysia joined the Council in the difficult aftermath (and subsequent investigations) of the downing of MH 17, has been a voice (including at times a woman’s voice) of passion and perspective on issues of Children and Armed Conflict, and has also done solid work on sanctions to help support Libya’s often torturous transitions.   Venezuela has taken strong stands in support of self-governing territories, for restraint regarding coercive interference (including South Sudan sanctions) imposed on smaller states by larger ones, and for an end to P-5 (mostly US-led in its view) backroom manipulations of Council procedures and working methods.

All have had impact on the often disabling “culture” of the Security Council, but New Zealand has been a special and welcome case.  From the earnest and wise declarations of Ambassador Jim McLay to more measured guidance from current Ambassador Gerard van Bohemen, New Zealand has understood better than almost all states serving on the Council in the 10+ years we’ve been paying attention, that the limitations plaguing the Security Council are, indeed, fundamentally “cultural” in nature.

New Zealand, which has rightly prided itself on its “fair and straightforward” SC approach, does not need me (or anyone) putting words in their mouths.  And yet we can safely say that the country has invested significant energy in determining the best ways for it to be “relevant” in matters such as Middle East peace that are so clearly dominated by large state interests and deterred by legacy working methods more appropriate to the century in which they were birthed than the current one.   Time and again, often thanklessly, New Zealand has placed itself in the middle of squabbling colleagues in an attempt to break negotiating impasses and clarify policy options. Time and again, in a manner that is clearheaded but not preachy, it has reminded Council members of their responsibilities as well as the consequences to lives and reputations when those responsibilities – as is too often the case – are delayed or denied.

Some have wondered why we persist in this ritual of elevating the accomplishments of rotating states in a Council that remains in almost complete (if acrimonious) control of the Permanent Five.  The answer comes about in part as the result of sitting in many hundreds of Council meetings over the years with our interns and fellows, all of whom were honored to be present in that space, but most of whom have been baffled by the extent to which such an august chamber often results in mediocre, compromised responses to compelling global threats.  Here are just some of the questions (paraphrased) they have posed (and that we have subsequently discussed) during our time together:

  • Why do Council members so often treat each other like strangers in formal and even non-formal sessions (a question raised regularly by Ambassador Rycroft of the UK as well)?
  • Why do Council members read statements that so rarely reference the content of statements delivered either by the invited briefers or by other Council members?
  • Why don’t Council members consider crafting more joint statements and fewer individual ones?
  • Why don’t Council members dispense with ritualized “appreciations” for briefings and use the time to highlight items in those briefings that have influenced their own policy priorities?
  • Why does the Council hold general “debates” when no debating actually takes place?
  • Why are end-of-the-month, “open” sessions on Council achievements and working methods apparently optional instead of mandatory?
  • Why are Council meetings so often lacking in reflection and commitment to careful, honest assessments of peacekeeping mandates and other policy decisions that (often) haven’t worked out as well as we had hoped? What are members learning that can improve effectiveness?
  • Why are some Council members reluctant to reference (let alone engage) other relevant UN bodies — including the Peacebuilding Commission – in helping to discharge its mandated peace and security responsibilities?
  • Why isn’t there some type of “alumni association” of recent past non-permanent members who can serve as a guide to new non-permanent members and as another experienced resource on culture and working methods for the Council as a whole?
  • Why do Council members allow some sessions to be concluded by often acerbic and self-serving comments from states such as Sudan and Syria rather than by more contextual, perhaps even hopeful, summary comments emanating from the Council presidency?
  • Why is “veto restraint” such a popular reform option for so many states but less so the reforms to our system of early warning and special political missions that could stem violence in its early stages such that vetoes might not even become an issue?
  • Why is it that some Council members are so comfortable with increased levels of coercive peacekeeping but are seemingly less interested in assessing the diverse (sometimes quite negative) impacts and implications of coercive response?

There is much frustration among member states and the global public regarding stalemates in the Council that impede responses to tragedies, such as Aleppo, that are splashed across our phone and TV screens.   Indeed, there are many days when our own twitter feed is inundated with digital “screams” directed towards the UN and more specifically the Council to “Do Something!!”  When the “screams” are not heeded, the blaming begins.  It’s the Russians in Syria, the US in Yemen, the French in Central African Republic: members and others casting a wide net of blame, though rarely accepting blame in return.

This blame dodging, too, is part of the “culture” of the Council that the non-permanent members must continue to interrogate.   This is the culture for which ideas like “veto restraint” are only partial solutions. This is the culture that New Zealand has so capably identified and on the basis of which they (and other states such as Uruguay) have endured many frustrating and even awkward moments.

And these (aforementioned) questions are ones that reasonable global constituents –including many who don’t have hours to spend studying the Council up close – have the right to have answered.

In this time of populist political transitions, when trust levels in multilateralism’s security effectiveness are too low and about to take another significant hit from Washington, it is incumbent upon all members – including this new group of influential states taking their seats in January — to ensure that the effectiveness of the Council does not continue to be undermined by its operational ethos. The world’s most important chamber deserves a culture to match.

The Sounds of Silence:  The Current UN DSG Makes an Enduring Appeal on Human Rights

11 Dec

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. Desmond Tutu

As the holiday season approaches, the UN is racing to a year-end finish line characterized by significant transitions and activity across all three UN pillars.  The activity has been intense, ranging from a new General Assembly resolution to help resolve the Syria carnage and efforts to sharpen our financial and communications tools to combat terrorism, to discussions on how to improve global taxation policies and ensure political participation for migrants and refugees.

So, too, have been the transitions.  On December 12, the UN community will witness the oath of office administered to António Guterres as the next UN Secretary General.   And, if current rumors are to be believed, the Deputy Secretary General post will soon be offered to Amina Mohammed of Nigeria, a woman of great substance who worked tirelessly in her previous UN iteration to bring the Sustainable Development Goals to fruition.  Guterres, the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and Mohammed will hopefully make a formidable team, especially regarding core UN responsibilities for sustainable development, humanitarian assistance and refugee protection.

These two will step in for the current team of SG Ban Ki-moon and DSG Jan Eliasson whose joint UN legacy will surely be assessed at length over the coming years.  The departure of SG Ban has garnered most of the UN’s attention to date and so I would like to focus a bit here on some recent contributions of the Deputy Secretary General, a man in possession of one of the most storied careers ever to have played out within UN confines, a career that has greatly shaped how the UN understands its responsibilities to promote human rights and build sustainable peace.

For the past 4 + years, my various groups of diverse interns and fellows have often commented on the DSG’s special appeal.  He uses his voice to full effect, not as a battering ram, but as a way of reminding delegations and NGOs why we’re here in this policy space, why it matters that we’re here.  He understands the need to inspire as well as to contextualize – helping all of us to recognize that our lofty ideals and values cannot be taken for granted as we so often do, cannot become the equivalent of tiny candies we sprinkle on top of an ice cream cone that is slowly melting before our eyes.

My office colleagues have also understood that the DSG is much more than a cheerleader for the UN Charter that he claims to always carry in his coat pocket.  Eliasson well understands the complex and anxious times that we find ourselves in, citing in recent remarks at NYC’s Roosevelt House the “fear factor” that must be forthrightly addressed, the anxiety that too often results in “us vs. them” scenarios and the suggestion of quick, blame-filled solutions to problems that are clearly more systemic in nature.

We acknowledge that the rhetoric of human rights can and has been misapplied by many –by those elites unconcerned by violations beyond their neighborhoods and media of choice; by those who overly-personalize rights to mean “doing what I want to do” –mostly without consequence; by those rightly passionate about the protection of their own rights but indifferent to those suffering from other discriminations.   We ourselves know too many people who utilize the language of “rights” in much the same way that children in my old neighborhood once used the language of “cooties” – creating artificial distance based on fears real and imaginary rather than pathways to human communion.   As Eliasson noted recently at Roosevelt House, we must all recommit to creating a trustworthy, positive narrative about our common humanity, a narrative that has clearly been misplaced amidst our pervasive social grievances, cultural distractions and populist passions.

If the current wave of populist politics has taught us anything – and the jury on this is still out – it is that we have not suitably “sold” populations on a “common” system of values, laws and commitments that ostensibly has the best interests of all at heart.  These persons have not been “sold” in part because we have not always lived up to the high expectations of policy leadership.  Despite the efforts of the DSG and many others, we have not properly supported the UN’s human rights pillar nor highlighted its many practical achievements; we have bestowed selective outrage on horrific tragedies like Aleppo while keeping our policy distance from other horrors, such as in Yemen.   We have reached deeply into some communities desperately needing a dignity boost while overlooking that dignity is a common aspiration, a common need, a common pursuit.  If populists are suspicious of our “universal” values, as the DSG has maintained they are, it is in part because we caretakers of those values have been careless about their application – “politically correct” perhaps, but much too political in any event.

Human dignity, as Eliasson affirmed recently at a UN side event hosted by his native Sweden, is indeed that irreplaceable “starting point” for our peace and development commitments.  If we cannot find the means and the will to hold each other in higher regard; if we cannot uphold those facing particular discriminations without also rushing to demonize those allegedly doing the discriminating; if we cannot speak up for the rights of strangers in the same way we support those in our tightest social circles, then prospects for peace among nations and peoples, as well as for sustainable human development, will remain in serious jeopardy.

These current “trying times” will not be resolved solely by getting our accounts in order or through pious proclamations of universal values.   We will all need to raise our game: to accompany others on their search for dignity; to stand up and speak out for others in times of great need; to advocate for fair access to education, economics and politics; and above all to pay more attention to each other such that – as Eliasson recently urged – when we come across something gone wrong, we can and will “act early.”

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the fundamental document defining the UN community’s human rights commitments, remains as a powerful testimony to our common responsibility to each other.  But as Eliasson noted at Roosevelt House, the ills to which the Declaration points are “largely still with us.”  If we want that world envisioned by the Declaration, we will all need to sound off and sound wisely.  The “silent treatment” is simply not a remedy adequate for what now threatens us.

Our new SG Guterres, building on the longstanding efforts of Eliasson and so many others, has already proclaimed that “human dignity will be the core of my work.”  But if dignity is to prevail, this will take more than the SG, more even than fair and competent international institutions.  This will require all of us to replace the “sounds of silence” with voices of compassion, attentiveness and care.  As with the UN and its new leadership, this is likely to become our defining moment as well.

Night Vision:  An Advent Reflection, Dr. Robert Zuber

4 Dec

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Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.  Anne Frank

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.  Edgar Allan Poe

This reflection is dedicated to Robert Aspeslagh, perhaps my greatest mentor, who passed away this fall in Amsterdam.  Robert was a thoughtful student of humanity and our always messy and sometimes mean-spirited politics.  He was also a painter who, like great Dutch artists of the past, explored the wealth of human wisdom lodged in the metaphorical spaces between darkness and light.

There are many reasons why Advent is my favorite liturgical season, coming as it does near the end of what in many years is a dark, gloomy and wind-swept fall.

Advent conveys the seasonal obligation to prepare for a Christmas celebration that is hopefully about more than conspicuous consumption and strained family relations.  It also expresses a strong and pervasive longing – calling out to Emmanuel for relief from fear and despair; dreaming of that time when peace is finally welcome to permeate our hearts and define our politics; doubting and then overcoming doubt that we can right our collective ship before it becomes permanently disabled on rocks of our own making.

The image that I have always carried around with me during Advent is that of a young adult, female or male, sitting with some sense of urgency on the edge of a cliff on a crisp, clear night, moon and stars casting light both subtle and mesmerizing.   There is vast darkness in this image, but also spectacle; the spectacle of the “heavens” we rarely bother to seek out any longer, an awe-inspiring display that provides a soft but sufficient light once our eyes figure out how to adjust to its peculiar intensity.

Of course, there are many fall nights — even in biblical lands — that are crisp but not clear; when clouds hover, blocking out the spectacle and leaving the cliff sitters in a veil of darkness that, even in those times, must have been highly uncomfortable.   A darkness that most of us “modern” folk can barely relate to, an enveloping presence for which there is no candle, no flashlight, no outlet for devices: for us a bit reminiscent perhaps of a long walk down a dark and lonely path with little to guide your steps or protect you from the unexpected.

This is the darkness that suspends all of light’s gifts  – the ability to navigate space, to pinpoint danger before it seizes us, to orient ourselves in a world of constant stress that trades off satisfaction for the (not always cheap) thrills of modern complexity.  To be in an enveloping darkness is akin to being lost in a deep swamp (or the deep woods) where potential dangers lurk but where there are no signposts of safety.   We cannot “see” threats that might be lurking, dangers both real and imaginary, those that might attack our person and, much like the monsters allegedly hiding under our first childhood beds, those that stoke fantasy-driven fear and helplessness.

But there are dangers with the light as well.  Where there is light there is also distraction, an almost relentless seduction by everything in range of our senses, an exposure to the world made uncomfortable through its ability to behold you as well as you beholding it.   Our lives are now so “bright,” our world so fully (and artificially) illuminated.  Sunlight may indeed be the best disinfectant, as noted last century by US Supreme Court Justice Brandeis, but the light we manufacture, the clutches of which we can barely escape, is as likely to cause sickness as alleviate it.

As many of you recognize, “light pollution” is a term now used to describe the consequences of what for many of us (especially in cities) are our excessively indoor lives, dominated by artificial illumination for which even copious amounts of Vitamin D cannot compensate.  Especially this time of year, our encounters with natural light are often reduced to fleeting glimpses of sun or moon. Indeed, even if we wanted to, there is so much artificial illumination in our world (before and after sunset) that most of us can no longer find a seat at the cliff to behold the galactic encounter that inspired and absorbed the first Advent longings.  Our obsession with masking the powers of darkness robs us of exposure to the greatest spectacles and deepest wisdom that darkness is best suited to reveal.

Sometime before the dawn of the computer age, I used to run a program at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York known as “Nightwatch,” named in part after that famous and expansive Rembrandt canvas which, along with other Dutch masters of the light in the Rijksmuseum, I was privileged to see with my dear friend Robert on several occasions.  The idea of the Cathedral program was to give groups of teenagers an opportunity to abandon at least some of their distractions for a weekend, to experience this grand sacred space in a manner unlike what they would likely be exposed to elsewhere.

As I recall, the pre-Christmas programs were the most popular, despite the relative lack of seasonal warmth and sunlight. But the “darkness” they experienced at the Cathedral was mostly safe, even in that (at the time) mostly unsafe neighborhood.   The Cathedral’s walls mostly though not completely rebuffed the noisy, illuminated chaos coming from the outside.  The lighting inside the Cathedral itself was carefully modulated (by me) to accentuate the shadows in that great space, but the subtle volume and intended object of that light (an altar) seemed to bring a comfort and even calm to many.  There was just enough light in that vast, dark space to inspire awe in those youth and create opportunity for reflection, but not enough to allow them to be distracted by those many objects that a stronger, more intrusive light would have revealed.

As our current group of UN interns has shared with me, there is much emotional content that can be attached to darkness, or at least regarding degrees of darkness that they have experienced in their lives.  On the positive side, darkness is associated with solitude and reflection, a break from the relentlessness of our excessively illuminated lives and the “flaws” and distractions such illumination exposes.  In that sense, darkness is rightly associated by them with both relief and focus, offering judgement-free opportunities to sit with themselves and examine their life trajectory, concentrating and comforting the senses in ways that daylight hours in UN conference rooms and their artificial illumination can make so very challenging.

We “all look better after dark” one recent television commercial proclaims.  We “look better” in part because the light surrounding us then is softer, more forgiving of the physical flaws and behavioral quirks we otherwise try so hard to conceal, the flaws that make us more interesting to others (also I suspect to God) but often – and so sadly I think — less interesting to ourselves.

Finding space to cultivate that ever-more elusive night vision is a key aspect of our Advent preparation.  Beholding light that can soften the darkness without robbing it of its powerful messages; light that focuses our attention while minimizing temptations to distraction; this is central to tapping the emotional content of this season.

In some metaphorical sense, and in part due to longstanding addictions to our overly (and artificially) illuminated world, many of us still prefer to “sleep with the lights on.”  This is the season to turn those lights off or, at the very least, lower the dimmer switch.