On my third — or is it my fourth — trip to the mall, I start composing a dark little tune about running into Christ. He’s shopping, too. For Christmas? Why should Christ have to shop for Christmas? I’m working on the next line when I run into a friend, and we stop to talk. He says he’s there to buy some sexy underwear for his wife, and we joke about it, with that obligatory cleverness men usually bring to the subject of sex. Then we talk about his health, about which people hardly ever joke.

A few weeks earlier, he’d spent some agonizingly long moments on the phone, waiting for his doctor to shuffle through the papers on his desk for the biopsy results. He’d already been in suspense for several days since the biopsy was done; he likened contemplating the possibility of his own death with the anguish of a love affair ending, except this time he’d be splitting up with himself. Yes, there had been some bad moments; yet now, waiting these extra few seconds, the tension was inconceivably worse, no less heart-rending for being the kind of scene you’d scoff at, in a movie, for being too melodramatic. They were, my friend said, the worse moments of his life. And, sitting in his living room, the phone cradled to his ear, waiting to hear if it was or wasn’t cancer, his regret, he said, wasn’t that he hadn’t accomplished more in his life, been a better artist, left behind more enduring works, but rather that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d taken his wife dancing.

It was a poignant reminder for me of how many “unimportant” things I neglect, too, having forgotten, like most of us, that tomorrow doesn’t belong to me, no matter what my desk calendar says. Faced with death, my friend was jolted out of his reverie; how precious the fleeting moment becomes when we remind ourselves how fleeting it is! Since we’re all going to die, you’d think we’d stay awake all the time, but who remembers this? Doing the laundry, making a name for ourselves — this we remember. Entranced by the bland face of the clock, we forget that time isn’t a number but a mystery, and that the next moment is always unknown.

The news from the doctor, it turned out, was good: my friend didn’t have cancer; he would live. And for a while he would live with eyes more open. But nothing guarantees we’ll stay awake: an unforgettable moment of pain, or ecstasy, is forgotten; what once was spelled out so clearly is hard to read in memory’s fading light. In the East, they say it takes many lifetimes to truly awaken. Christ said it takes a wild, unselfish love, and letting our illusions die again and again. An end to illusions. . . . Wakefulness. . . . Who can imagine it? The words are familiar, but do we really know what they mean? When my youngest daughter, Sara, started insisting that she could tell the time, she’d encourage me all day to ask her what time it was. I’d oblige, but her answer would always be the same. “Three o’clock,” she’d say proudly — which no doubt made sense to her; just so, I suspect, do we “make sense” of the love of which Christ speaks.

I’m reminded, at Christmas, of how imperfect my understanding is. It’s ironic, since I’m not a Christian, that the holiday affects me so profoundly, so sorrowfully.

It’s not just the commercialization, depressing though that is. After all, we live in a society that year-round insists the world is primarily physical, a thing, and gives only token acknowledgement to the spiritual. The godlessness we abhor in communism characterizes much of American life, too; indeed, the Christmas spirit of selfless love and compassion threatens our way of life — our politics and economy and organized religions — as much as the Russians do. If we conspire all year to ignore the cry of the heart, shall we not be deaf at Christmas, too? Actually, our commercial excess makes a kind of crude sense: by diluting Christmas with gifts and gimmicks, we preserve the fiction that the holiday is really about family togetherness, giving and receiving, and a quixotic longing for peace — sentiments which may be deeply felt and poignantly expressed but which really don’t challenge the day-to-day amnesia of our lives.

Christmas is diluted, too, when it celebrates the birth of Christ so mawkishly and so literally, as an event long ago and far away, impossibly removed from our lives. The nativity scene etched in our minds, of a softly glowing Jesus surrounded by crooning angels and proud, beaming parents, becomes the natural birth par excellence; thus, one of humanity’s most powerful metaphors for awakening — the realization that we are, each of us, spirit incarnated in flesh — is rendered as a greeting card. This takes the perfect love which Christ embodied, and which lies largely dormant in each of us, and places it out of reach, as an object of adoration. How much safer it is to adore a romanticized savior than to remember Christ’s urgent reminder, which echoes through eternity: that the kingdom of God is within us, each of us.

If I know this, why, at Christmas, do I ignore it? Is it because so many people around me seem to be ignoring it? Why do I trade an inner sense of rightness for social conformity, for doing the right thing? You’d think an independent guy like me would be shaking the tree, not draping tinsel on it. Yet here I am — roving the mall looking for more gifts; buying wine and cheese for the office Christmas party; fussing with the wooden angel I just bought, so it will hang perfectly amidst the twinkling lights and silvery balls, which reflect my woeful face back to me.

I could say I do it for my children, which is partly true, but never a good reason for confused purpose or lack of nerve — which is what children see and remember every time their parents trade in some invisible aspect of their integrity for visible gain, or acceptance, or their children’s approval.

I could say I do it for my wife, whose feelings about the holiday are entwined, like the pine needles she braided into a Christmas wreath, with memories of home and childhood and family. This is partly true, too — but she knows me too well not to be brushed by my melancholy and my ambivalence, not exactly holiday cheer.

I could say I do it because I’m a Jew, who’s not much of a Jew, in a Christian society that’s not very Christian, so it’s the path of least resistance — and this is true, too.

And how many other reasons can I find? And what do they matter? For the heart of my dilemma about Christmas — which touches not just on the holiday but on every aspect of my life — is a dilemma of belief: do I live my beliefs, or merely talk about them? What does it mean to believe in God, if God is a shattered chord in me, holy and broken, too faint to make out? I have no trouble hearing “Jingle Bells.” I don’t have to strain to hear the voice of doubt. . . .

How depressing to be so depressed at Christmas! Yet I knew, dimly, the timing was perfect. Who understands why, at certain times, we’re able to accept our compromises and contradictions, the skewed equations of our lives, while at other times nothing seems right? The symbol of the Christmas star, shining in the darkness, was poignant — for by denying the darkness in myself, I was also denying the light.

After all, grief comes; cherished lies crumble. The paradox, immutable as night and day, is that I always discover something precious in moments as bleak as this. All that keeps me from God is denying how separate I feel from Him. The mind balks at this: it’s too simple, too difficult . . . yet isn’t this resistance the soil of all my sorrows? Isn’t my denial the seed of all my fears?

— Sy