I tested positive for COVID-19 a few days ago. One of the interesting things about my illness was losing my sense of taste.

I was surprised that there seemed to be more senses associated with eating (besides actual taste) than I had realized, for, even though I couldn’t taste per se, there were many other sensations present still allowing for the pleasure of eating, even if it wasn’t as great as before. For instance, the food was appealing in a visual way, so that the initial anticipation of tasting pleasure could not help but create real pleasure of its own. Then there was the texture of the food, which my mouth could still feel, just as it always had. Finally, even my tastebuds seemed to receive the flavor on my tongue like normal, so that the act of eating was just as enjoyable as other times.

But this is as far as it went. It was as though the signal from my tongue to my brain was severed, so that the flavor, although apparently enjoyed by my tongue, was not enjoyed by me.

This act of eating without truly tasting caused me to think about some things. The experience was an apt metaphor for our time, I realized, particularly at Christmas, for we seem a people steeped in traditions that we no longer really understand. We go through mere motions (just as I was when eating without tasting) without sensing our activity’s true essence.

Take, for example, the great care and gusto we take to decorate our Christmas trees. We expend precious time and money for the proper decorations without ever knowing that, at one time, the tree itself served the very practical purpose of gift-bearing, as people would hang presents and food from it. We don’t know this, in part, because we’ve become a people who have stopped trying to look for meaning behind things, completely content to be moved by the surface-level, superficial existence of things. In this way, we are primarily a sensual people, desiring and reacting in a similar fashion as a cat to a laser light, or a fish moved by a bright and dangling lure.

We’ve been conditioned this way in part by the radical capitalistic structure of our country, in which advertising (or Madison Avenue, its metonym) plays a substantial part. This is so much the case that it has given way to a contemporary term called “clickbait,” in which online content producers present links they hope will draw or lure web users to their sites, in a fashion similar to the fish metaphor above.

While it’s true that enjoyment can be attained from the mere act of doing certain things in a ritualistic manner – just as it was for me during the act of eating without tasting – to go through the motions of activities that were meaningful to our ancestors, but have become much less so to us, is, in a way, not to be fully alive.

 T.S. Eliot wrote about something similar in 1925. “We are the hollow men,” he said. 

“We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when 
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless…” 

Tomorrow is the last day of Christmas. But it can be the first day of something else. It can be the beginning of a recovery of sorts, of finding meaning, not just in the way we decorate things, nor in how we enjoy food, but in who we are on the inside, whether or not we’re a people whose acts have essential meaning.

Sadly, for most in the West the meaning of the manger has been empty for generations. But it doesn’t have to be this way in our hearts. We don’t have to be the hollow men that Eliot wrote about.      

Along with his father, Allen Keller runs a lumber business in Stevenson, Alabama. He has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from Florida State University and an MBA from University of Virginia. He can be reached for comment at [email protected].

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News.

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