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Standing and Acting in the Tragic Gap

“The key to the future of the world is finding the hopeful stories and letting them be known.” —Pete Seeger

This Christmas marks the 101st anniversary of the famous Christmas Truce of World War I. On December 25, 1914, “British and German troops in trenches on the Western Front…put down their weapons and walked into No Man’s Land to sing Christmas songs, exchange cigarettes and play soccer in a brief respite from the horrors of battle.”

Folksinger John McCutcheon wrote a beautiful and moving ballad about this moment in time. Here he is performing “Christmas in the Trenches,” preceded by a few thoughts of mine about the meaning of such events.
In Healing the Heart of Democracy, I wrote about the importance of learning how to stand and act in “the tragic gap” — if we want to hang in for the long haul with birthing a better world.

On one side of that gap are the harsh and discouraging realities around us. On the other side is the better world we know to be possible — not merely because we wish it were so, but because we have seen it with our own eyes. We’re surrounded by greed, but we’ve seen great acts of generosity. We’re surrounded by violence, but we’ve seen people make peace.

The tragic gap will never close once and for all, a fact that can lead us into despair and resignation. But if we recall the ample evidence that “the better angels of our nature” are still with us, we are more likely to keep working at making the world a better place.

Every time I hear McCutcheon’s retelling of the Christmas Truce, I well up with a complex mix of despair and hope — despair over human madness and hope for the human possibility. It’s not an easy mix to hold. But holding it reassures me that I’m still standing and acting in the eternal drama of darkness-and-light that marks the real world.

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