Today, my friends were sharing one of those “feel-good” stories that isn’t actually very good.
I’m sure you know the type: a story about a person or a community that came together to help a suffering person who wouldn’t have been suffering in the first place if our culture were in any way what it ought to be. Last summer there was one all over the news about a family that bought an elderly man who mowed lawns all day for a living a new lawnmower, and we were supposed to feel good about the kind family instead of asking why the elderly man wasn’t being cared for instead of made to do manual labor at his age. Another time it was a robotics team that generously built a wheelchair for someone whose insurance company had denied their claim for a wheelchair. And another time it was a group of people who all got together to give a man with cancer their sick days so he didn’t lose his job.
This time, it was the story of a little girl named Katelynn Hardee, who ran a hot chocolate and cookie stand to pay off her schoolmates’ lunch debts for the holidays “so everyone can have a snack and lunch.” This story was painted as a heartwarming tale of compassion– just the story you want to read at Christmastime to give you the vague, warm feeling that everything is all right. A lot of these stories are shared at Christmas, for obvious reasons. Stories of extreme need suddenly met by loving people are a cherished element of Christmas Kitsch– and I like Christmas Kitsch. Christmas kitsch is fun. The world would be a much poorer place without it.
Of course, people also react to these stories with anger, as well they should. We shouldn’t just be cheering that a kindergartner sold cookies and hot chocolate to pay off lunch debt; we should be furious that “lunch debt” for children exists. Nutritious food is something all humans are entitled to have, by virtue of their being human, and if we have a shortage then the most vulnerable of us are the most entitled. That puts little kids at school at the front of the list. They deserve a lunch whether or not they can pay, with no exceptions. The fact that lunch debt exists is a testament to how truly immoral our society is. The fact that a small child is the one who decided to do something about this should shame us all. This is a story that should make you angry. The same with the “feel-good” story about the people who built someone a wheelchair when their insurance company wouldn’t just buy one. The same with the “feel-good” story about the people who gave a co-worker with cancer their sick days so he could keep his job. The same for the one about the people that bought the elderly man who mowed lawns for a living a lawnmower. Those stories ought to make you livid.
On the other hand, being livid can be exhausting. This is something that people who are passionate about social justice can have a hard time admitting. It’s correct to be so angry, but anger burns you out fast and it’s not always helpful. There’s a great deal in our world that we can’t change no matter how angry we get– at least, not right now, not for everyone, not on our own. And that anger at such a terrible society, without an eye for little ways to do good when the whole picture won’t change right away, can lead a person to some strange places.
I was once acquainted with a lady living in South America who was extremely angry one day, for a good reason. The young woman who came to clean her house had a baby daughter, and that daughter had failure to thrive. She wasn’t sitting up, playing or meeting her other milestones; she didn’t even smile. This was because of malnourishment. The cleaning lady’s milk had dried up, and she couldn’t afford any formula, so she had tried to feed the baby bottles of sugar water, just to get her some calories.
The lady got on social media to complain to her other mom friends about this.
“Why don’t you give her formula?” we all asked. “Or money to buy some?”
“It wouldn’t be fair for me to help her when there are so many women just like her all over the city,” said the lady.
And that was that.
She couldn’t change the whole of society, so she refused to do the small good that she could. She couldn’t change the world, so she didn’t do what she could to help just one person. It wouldn’t be fair. Her rage was justified, but it was all she had, so she didn’t help.
And that’s far more terrible than someone who couldn’t change the world doing what little they could, and becoming the subject of a cheesy story.
So, I do feel good at the feel-good story of Katelynn Hardee paying her schoolmates’ lunch debt with a hot cocoa stand– and at the story about the cancer patient, and the wheelchair, and the lawnmower, and all these other dystopian kitsch stories that are supposed to give us a vague good feeling that the world is all right at Christmas. I don’t feel that the world is all right, but I feel a little better about it. It tells me that there’s hope. I also feel angry. I am angry at the cold and horrible world we live in, and I’m overjoyed that someone fought to change it in a small way. I am comforted that at least one little girl had enough compassion to try to help. I also feel ashamed that I haven’t done more to help, myself, and I feel energized to try to change the world for the better, in both the great and the small ways that I can.
I guess that’s a pretty good way to feel at Christmas. Bring on the kitschy feel-good stories, but don’t stop there.
And don’t let your anger at the enormity of the problem to deter you from doing what little you can.
(image via Pixabay)
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