Several years ago I stopped giving Christmas gifts. I had come to see Christmas as a grossly over-commodified purchasing orgy, a holiday of things rather than people, and I simply gave up on it. This year, a couple days before the 25th, I met a woman on the street begging. It took me a while to convince myself to help her out, forever proving the maxim that when given the opportunity to be a schmuck, I’ll take full advantage of the offer. I wrote up an essay on my experiences called Christmas Consumption, and I’m publishing it because apparently I’m a masochist and like to flail myself for my shortcomings in the public square.
I don’t know why I frequently hesitate to help people in need. (Even that line is misleading. It implies that I actually hesitate, when in fact I usually avert my eyes and keep walking). I think the biggest reason is because engaging a person in need calls into question all the things we have that we don’t need, and let’s face it — none of us likes to believe that we live lives of excess. Who of us can look intimately upon human deprivation and then go home to our overstuffed cupboards and corpulent bellies, to say nothing of our iPods and flat screens, and carry-on as before?
The especially awkward thing is that none of us is far from where this woman, Bella, is. Most of us are one medical emergency away from brokenness, and none of us has much control over such realities. The social-economic ladder is short-runged and wobbling, the fall surprisingly short. That’s a terrifying thought, yet we conduct ourselves like it’s impossible. Worse, we frequently act as if because we have yet to fall we’re somehow better than those who have.
I’m sorry if I’m being a downer. I know it’s the New Year and we all want to think that ’09 will be different. But the realities of poverty, war, destitution, disease, you name it, are visceral and systemic, and flipping the calendar does nothing to weaken their sting. We live in a world where people suffer all the time, and the only way that’s going to change is if we as communities of individuals do something to make it different. It may not be enough, but it’ll be better than doing nothing.