Monday, December 21, 2009

The Spirit of Christmas All Year 'Round

Image: Movie still from the 1951 classic A Christmas Carol starring Alastair Sim
This week's newspaper column: Read it in the Hattiesburg American.
Everybody is buzzing now with the spirit of the holidays.

The Christmas season is when we Americans - no matter what race, religious affiliation (or none), and national origin – find a space in our busy schedules to come together and spend some quality time with family and friends. At Christmastime, we shower each other with gifts, plan parties, bake assorted sweet morsels, and find ourselves spontaneously wishing merriment to everyone we meet.

Petty grievances are set aside as diverse individuals congregate at family get-togethers and office parties. Disagreements fade as we find ourselves connecting with estranged acquaintances and saying nice things to people who we may otherwise secretly (or not so secretly) hold in contempt and avoid like the plague for eleven and a half months of the year. Festive decorations, over-the-top lighting, and Christmas carol soundtracks remind us to put away our hard feelings and celebrate the good in everybody.

All of a sudden, we seem to appreciate the value of “community.”

The young sage of Charles Dickens’ famous holiday classic of Christmas past, present, and future – Timothy Cratchit, better known as Tiny Tim – poetically captured this sentiment when, at the end of the tale, he exclaimed, “God bless us, every one!”

But how many times do we turn into hard-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge as soon as the tinsel is gone?

Scrooge epitomized an ethic of greed, distrust, and lack of respect for others, especially those he considered “beneath” him. His idea of a perfect society involved separating himself from people he found different, and thus, unappealing. His habit of demonizing those around him closed his eyes and ears to the value of each individual’s unique talents and contributions within the social fabric we vaguely refer to as community. In this cautionary tale, Scrooge’s intolerance, absent some not-so-gentle nudging from three convincing spirits, would have led to his undoing along with everyone else he so piously tried to bring down.

Sustainability is more popularly discussed in terms of physical objects - for example, green buildings – but the principles of sustainability apply quite adequately to the structure of our cultural and civic lives as well.

A sustainable community honors and respects diversity. Nature requires a wide variety of flora and fauna in the same ecosystem to remain healthy and viable. Nature honors and respects diversity; sustainable communities are no different. Demonizing those who have different backgrounds or ideas – a popular blood-sport in twenty-first century America – poisons the spirit of community and separates us as a culture.

Why not take this holiday spirit into the new year with the same energy and compassion? Try seeing the good in people first. Respect the differences in your neighbors, and, like Scrooge, you might wake up with a renewed love of life and a greater sense of “community.”

Too many devil’s advocates make life a living hell.

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