Throughout the Western world, the end-of-the-year holidays are a time for celebrating and making merry. Our most time-honored traditions encourage us to come together at this time in commemoration and gratitude for the blessings that life has to offer and the good fortune we have enjoyed during the year.
But even as we are encouraged to rejoice over the good things in life, the holiday season brings with it no shortage of reminders that there are many others who are not so fortunate. We are so often exhorted during this season to remember the needy and the downtrodden, under the theory that the knife of suffering never bites deeper than during the holidays, when the mood of happiness we are all expected to enjoy makes a person’s private pain and sorrow all the sharper by contrast.
Surely this is sound reasoning. And yet – and I am guilty of this no less than anyone else – I fear it is hopelessly insufficient. The admonition to remember the least among us is all well and good, but without real people in need to whom we can relate on a personal level, it is nothing but blinking letters on a screen, all too easy to agree with in the abstract and then forget about completely. However persuasive an argument may be to command the assent of a person’s rational faculties, if it does not also activate the emotional circuits and stir the sense of compassion, it is empty sound, conveying no more meaning than the whistle of the wind or the crackling of flames.
Therefore, gentle readers, I plead your indulgence for just a short time. Take just a little while out of the celebration and good cheer I hope you are all enjoying on this day – a little while away from holly and decorated trees and colorfully wrapped gifts, a little while away from good smells and good sights and good sounds, and bear with me as I remind us all – myself no less than any other – of the unfinished tasks that await us all, and the challenges that lie ahead in the coming new year. Permit me to speak my peace, and then I encourage you to resume your celebrations and fill your hearts with all the happiness and joy that there is to be had in life. But first, let us be sure we know why we celebrate, and what it means that we do so.
Let us not forget that, even on this day, there are families living in anxiety and fear, wondering how they will pay their medical bills, whether they will lose their homes, where their next meal will come from.
Let us not forget that, even on this day, there are young men and women in uniform far from home, in a desperately dangerous and chaotic place on the other side of the world, some on their third or fourth tour of duty, thinking of the families and loved ones they left behind and marking down the days until they can return to them.
And let us not forget that, even on this day, there are almost three thousand young men and women who will never be coming home. Each one is an empty seat at some family’s table, a young son or daughter who will grow up never knowing one of their parents. Each one is a life cut short, tragically, senselessly, all the untold potential of a lifetime snuffed out in an instant, reduced to ash and memory. Let us not forget the bereaved, the ones left behind, who will ever after have a void in their lives where someone they loved used to be.
Let us not forget the displaced. Even on this day, all over the world, there are families who have become the victims of natural disasters, of civil war, of genocide – people whose peaceful and settled lives, the kind we all take for granted, upended in a moment and swept away by violent chaos. Even on this day, there are people sleeping on the ground under a cheap tent or in the crowds and filth of a refugee camp, not knowing if they will ever again see their home or even if their home still exists. Even on this day, there are those living in hellish war zones, who almost every day receive the news of another death of a friend or loved one.
Let us not forget that, even on this day, there are people suffering under the weight of incurable diseases. Even on this day, there are people imprisoned in their own bodies, the days we all take for granted suddenly whisked away from them, facing an uncertain future of unbearable pain and the invasive indignities of medical care. Even on this day, there are people in hospital beds sleepless with fright, not knowing if they will ever see another day alive.
Let us not forget that, even on this day, there are innocent people in cruel prisons all around the world – prisoners of conscience punished for speaking out, or simply unfortunates who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Let us not forget these buried souls who suffer under long periods of crushing, deadening boredom interrupted periodically by spasms of humiliation and torture, and worst of all, the uncertainty of not knowing whether they will ever breathe free again or whether their lives are doomed to dwindle and end in that awful place.
I do not write this to inspire despair, nor to suggest that life is too grim and full of pain to celebrate anything. On the contrary, even the noblest and most compassionate person could not spend their every waking moment fighting injustice, not without being worn down to nothing. We all need time to come together in peace and joyfulness, the better to replenish our spirits and remind ourselves what the end is that we are striving towards – and then, to rededicate our lives to the tasks that remain for us.
Even on this day, there are people suffering and in need. Let us not silently write them off, and let us not hide our faces in shame. Rather, let us reach out to them – not just on this day, but on all days. Let us make contact with a fellow human being, bridging the shallow divides of language, creed and culture to perceive the deep similarities we all have in common, and let us use that connection to shine our light into their lives and make them part of what we take joy in. Let us do what good we can for others and offer them what help we can, no matter how small and insufficient it may seem at times. For people in dire straits, even the smallest aid can mean a great deal. And most of all, let our knowledge of need not overwhelm us – for if we allow the suffering of others to destroy all our happiness, then we have accomplished nothing except to create two people in pain where previously there was only one. Instead, let our happiness be the vehicle impelling us to reach outwards, to spread to other people so that they can feel as we do, like the flame that kindles others and is not diminished thereby.
I have now said my peace, and I ask no more of your time. I ask only that you hold these words in your heart, and after this day has passed and the festivities have ended, remember them. The new year is coming soon, a fresh start and a new season of opportunities to work for justice in the world. Will you join with me, readers, in using it wisely?