Have Yourself a Merry Little Syphilis
Trigger alert – this essay has Christianity coming right out the ying yang.
If you don’t want to read something Christian, this is probably not the essay for you, even though it also has a healthy dollop of sex to spice things up. But happy holidays regardless, my Ordinary friends, and I’ll try not to let it happen again.
What is the true meaning of Christmas anyway? Family? Giving presents? Gaining 10 pounds from freebasing candy canes? Peace on Earth, goodwill towards men, all that kind of crap?
I’m going to set that question aside for a little bit to talk about syphilis.
Syphilis may sound like a courageous hero from Greek myth who killed some chick with scorpions for boobs or something, but it’s actually a sexually transmitted disease. No one is really quite sure where it came from or how long it’s been nipping at humanity’s genitals. What we do know is starting around about the year 1500 syphilis became a super huge deal and wreaked havoc on humanity for the next 450 years, until penicillin, the arch enemy of syphilis, was invented and they started going at each other like that blonde-headed crying lady and the cat eating a salad.
How much havoc was wrecked, you may ask?? Well, by the end of the 16th century syphilis was one of the biggest, if not THE biggest public health menace (and there were a LOT of public health menaces jockeying for position, just sayin) everywhere in the settled world. I’d love to be able to give you some numbers about how many millions of people had syphilis at its peak but the trouble is, syphilis carried with it a huge social stigma in addition to being a pretty sneaky disease that isn’t always easy to diagnose, and so records are grossly unreliable. Patients weren’t always honest and doctors were often complicit in the vast “Grandad had syphilis” coverup.
What I can tell you is that even as recently as 2015, syphilis afflicted 45.4 million people worldwide and 107,000 people died of the disease. IN 2015. That is not even 5 years ago, my mathematically-challenged readers. That’s correct, syphilis is treatable and yet a surprising amount of people have it even still to this very day. A significant number are still dying from it, WAY more than have died from eating Tide Pods.
Syphilis was so common during the 19th century there was a branch of medicine devoted solely to treating people who had it. You had your opthamologist, your dermatologist, and your syphilis-ologist (his mother was so proud when he graduated from syphilis-ologist school). Thus, I believe we can safely assume that back in olden times, a hugely massive number of our ancestors suffered from what was lovingly referred to as “the Great Pox”.
The reason this is possible is because syphilis isn’t all sudden and acute like the mediocre and unassuming smallpox. This is the GREAT POX we’re talking about, it has tricks up its sleeve, by which I mean down your pants. You can live with syphilis for decades, walking around totally unaware of the ticking time bomb that is your junk, spreading it to all your friends and neighbors and coworkers during that time, if you’re having sex with them, that is, or if they forget to use that crinkly white paper thingy on the toilet seat.
Syphilis is like the functional alcoholism of the disease world — you’re slowly being destroyed from the inside out, but you can keep showing up to work in the morning. Eventually, though, it does catch up to you, and one of the most sinister ways it does is by making you go crazy. Not everyone with syphilis goes crazy, but a healthy chunk of them do, enough so that this very day people like to say Donald Trump is crazy for that reason. Symptoms include paranoia, mood swings, and a variety of other personality changes that tended to make people act like massive a-holes. Some historic charmers believed to have mental issues from neurosyphilis were Vladimir Lenin, Al Capone, Adolf Hitler, and Idi Amin, but suffice it to say, they were very very much not alone in the a-hole department. There were lots of crazed syphilitic monsters lurching around history doing terrible things to innocent people because of the STD eating the delicious mush of their brains, and only a few of them we remember today.
But of course, of course, this is a Christmas article. Don’t worry, I’m not going to shockingly reveal that Santa has syphilis on his Yule Log or anything like that. (but OMG have you heard anything??? Has Jolly Old St. Nick stuffed the wrong stocking? Trimmed the wrong tree?? Seasoned the wrong greeting??? Drunk from the community Wassail bowl one too many times???? Let me know in the comments!!!!!) We’re here to answer one question and that is what is the meaning of Christmas?
Linus, can you help us out here?
Whoa, that thumbsucking preturnaturally wise cartoon character was right. The true meaning of Christmas involves Jesus getting born. I know it’s a lot less sexy than a Hallmark Christmas Movie, where a stressed-out overworked party planner meets a buff, bearded, flannel-clad handyman, but it’s the truth. Jesus was born and the reason why Jesus was born was to redeem our sins. That means we don’t just get everyone to act nice about the bad stuff we did while secretly holding it against us and whispering about it behind our backs, we actually get to have it stricken from the record. And we don’t even have to do anything other than believe in some guy. Jesus didn’t just get crucified so we could color Easter eggs and eat marshmallow Peeps, peeps. There was a method to his madness. It’s the entire purpose of the J-Man, he died to redeem humans from their sins.
But sin, schmin. Sin is such an antiquated idea. I mean really, are we even RESPONSIBLE for our sins? After all, we have a greater understanding of the human brain than ever before. We know beyond a doubt that brain injuries and disease processes can cause personality changes that can be very shocking. We know Phineas Gage took an iron bar to the brain and became a different person. We know Texas Tower Shooter Charles Whitman had a brain tumor. We know a man became a pedophile because of a brain tumor, was cured when he had it removed, and then became a pedophile again when it grew back. Journalist Susannah Callahan experienced life-ruining psychological symptoms from an autoimmune disease that went away when she was treated, and that got made into a movie so it has to be true.
Most of us believe that much smaller affronts can affect the way the mind works. Without even getting into the realm of mental illness, most would agree that trauma, abuse, a childhood of deprivation have lasting effects on human judgement and behavior. Over the past decade we’ve learned, for example, that the teenage brain is immature, unable to make long-term decisions such as taking on student loans, and some believe said loans should be forgiven in no small part due to the immature teen brain. Many people even call for a later start time for high schools to allow for the natural variations of the teenage body clock. Those of us who have ever used drugs or alcohol know that our judgement and self-control can be extremely and severely afflicted after imbibing. Entirely natural hormones present in pregnancy, the menstrual cycle, and fluctuating testosterone levels have all been proven to affect human personality. And it isn’t just teenagers who are sensitive to sleep disruptions; who hasn’t found themselves irritable and impatient, even mean, after missing a few hours of sleep?
But what does any of that have to do with Christmas? Except for the alcohol part anyway, and could you please pass me the egg nog?
Of late, I’ve been thinking a lot about good and evil and the human brain. Or as those pesky Christians like to put it, since it is their season and all, the nature of sin. We live in a world in which a whole lot of people seem to enjoy, almost as if it was a hobby for them, going back through the annals of history looking for sinners. Sinners are not hard to find, especially in history, and if you’re a person who likes damning them, you’ve got plenty of options to choose from.
I find it paradoxical that so many people willing to excuse actual, modern day evil, to write even pretty heinous crimes off as being caused by bad parenting and bullying and poverty and cultural differences and lack of opportunity and mental illness, who (often rightfully) bemoan our criminal justice system when it fails to give habitual offenders a 3rd, 4th, 5th, 100th chance at rehabilitation, the selfsame people will happily assign themselves as judge, jury, and character executioner of people who lived hundreds of years ago. The same people who embrace cultural relativism with both arms and then slip it the tongue (as long as it doesn’t apply to Christians, that is, LOLZ, because those jerks are the LITERAL WORST) are perfectly happy to apply modern morality retroactively, writing off literally all our ancestors as irredeemable sinners without taking into consideration any mitigating circumstances. Mitigating circumstances like hunger, like poverty, like just being plumb worn out from performing backbreaking labor 12 hours a day.
The people of the past experienced loss and trauma pretty much constantly – and I ain’t talking about microaggressions, either. They were raised with dramatically different worldviews about the sanctity of life and the nature of good and evil. Many of them even had a disease 100% proven to rot people’s brains, not to mention a lot of other diseases besides. They cannot be held responsible for their actions in the same way that a person who lives in the here and now might be. They deserve our pity and our compassion.
You and I might likely disagree about why this paradox exists. Personally I suspect it’s to taint innocent-but-imperfect people who live today with the sins of the past, to declare some of us guilty in perpetuity for crimes our ancestors committed so folks can punish those long-ago sins in the here and now. I mean we can’t just let this stuff GO, Thomas Jefferson might have got laid! Someone has to pay!
Now that I think about it, it doesn’t matter the reasons for the paradox, not really. Because the way sins work is that you’re responsible for your own sins, not everyone else’s.
Guilt is not syphilis, it doesn’t spread from person to person like a spirochete.
Jesus was willing to die so that others could be redeemed. Everyone, including Actual Bad Guys. Real live sinners, not just people unlucky enough to have a sinner in their family tree. And this happened because God realized he had set the bar too high and no one could live up to it. God realized that life was hard, the world was cruel, and the flesh was weak, and that sometimes, people sin.
I’m inclined to believe that God may have even learned a lesson many people across the political spectrum have a hard time with – sinners are not always entirely responsible for their personal failings. Sometimes there really are mitigating circumstances. Thus he sent his only begotten son to Earth to die, to redeem us for failings that were a result of being an imperfect person in an impossible situation because He loved us and didn’t want us to burn in Hell forever for stuff that wasn’t really even our fault.
Isn’t that fricking awesome? I mean, seriously, what a twist! If it happened on a TV show everyone would be totally geeking out about it.
This Christmas, I think we should take a page out of Jesus’ book. Grant sinners, both past and present, redemption. Not only for the sins you understand, not only for the sins that aren’t actually even frowned upon in your social circle here in 2019 but the sins that you cannot ever imagine ever committing as you sit at your computer in front of a cozy fire and sip hot cocoa while listening to “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmastime” on iTunes.
The real meaning of Christmas is redemption. All of our redemption. Our redemption was what Jesus was born for. It was what He lived for, and what He died for. Even if you think it’s only a myth, it’s a powerful message.
Thanks, my Holy Dude. Because God knows, I need it. We all do.
Even Thomas Jefferson.