Saturday, December 17, 2011

Alone at Christmas

The cultural mythology built up in our society around the late-year holidays is inescapable. Beginning with Thanksgiving week and building steadily through the climactic joy of Christmas Day and winding up in the coda of New Year=s Eve socializing (and subsequent day of football parties) we are awash in around 40 days of feel-good merry making immortalized in song and story.

One local radio station begins in mid-November playing Christmas music 24/7 and one need only pay attention to the lyrics to pick up on the persistent theme. Oh sure, there's the occasional Blue Christmas bemoaning a lost love, or War is Over to provide a cautionary thought, but the overwhelming narrative is "everyone is happy, everyone is friendly, love and good will abound in all corners of creation" even though if you thought very deeply you would of course realize that reality does not always live up to that narrative (Black Friday behavior is an easy example).

Nevertheless, while we note that we fall short of our mythology and that the real world is a bit more gritty, a bit darker and less chipper than is implied by the traditional meme, it's still true that on an emotional level there's a pretty massive amount of pressure to be happy and make others happy. And that pressure is inseparably intertwined with the claim that these days cannot be truly happy unless shared with friends and family. This is admittedly true to an extent. Humans are by design social creatures. While it's obviously true that some of us function better in solitude than in others, as a general principle people need each other. Emotionally, we want to be liked, love to be loved, enjoy more the shared laugh, or draw more comfort from shared tears, than we could do alone. Perhaps the central foundation of the mythologized joy of the holiday season is the act of sharing these times with others.

People will generally go to great lengths to active this. From office party to family dinner to church social, people will show good humor and a gentle spirit to people they spend the other 320+ days of the year avoiding or fighting with. Gifts will be given, toasts will be shared, hugs and smile and laughter abound. Certainly over in the corner someone might be gossiping a bit, even here, but both because of our sincere feelings, and because our culture tells us it=s the right thing to do, we tend to suppress our worse angels for 40 days or so.

Of course, the dark underbelly of the holiday season, the sight we'd rather not witness, is the plight of the person who has no family or friends to turn to. The person who, while drowning in a cultural sea of "be with the ones you love" cannot do so, or indeed, have no one to love. One of the better manifestations of human charity during this season is observed in those efforts that people make to reach out to the stranger in their midst. In a huge number of cities and towns people of good will dedicate their time and treasure to make the holidays a bit happier for the homeless or the shut-in or the impoverished so that they, too, can share in the emotional balm that comes naturally to so many around them - the simple joy of knowing someone cares, if only briefly. But it is not those efforts I wish to comment on in this space. For all those efforts are made towards people you do not previously have a relationship with. They are by nature an outreach to the stranger, the person you have no other reason to care about beyond the charity of the season (albeit all of us should care all year long, but that's a different commentary).

What I'd like to ask you to think about is this season is why are many of those people out there? Why are people separated from their one-time friends and so-called family? Certainly in many cases it is a result of an unavoidable circumstance (on the part of the loved ones). People do behave in self-destructive ways at times and there is obviously a limit to what loved ones can do to change that course. But how many of those people who will spend the coming week alone are there because those who had the opportunity to love them made poor choices of their own?

If you look beneath the shiny surface of the holiday season, there are thousands among us who WANT to be loved by the important people in their life, who long to share a hug and a laugh and even tears with the people who once played a huge part in their lives, but they cannot, because too many have chosen judgement over love, rules over compassion, self-absorption over self-sacrifice. How many parents have rejected their child and disowned them because they disapproved of that child, and justified it by saying they disapproved of the child's "choices"? How many adult children have rejected their parents? How many siblings deny the brother or sister who shares their blood? How many so-called friends failed to stand strong when their friend was hard to love?

You might be thinking "How often does this happen, really?" but I will tell you now that if that soul who's alone this weekend is gay, lesbian, or transsexual - it happens far more often than you dare imagine. The stories of parents putting even underage kids on the street when they find out the child has "shamed" them by being homosexual or trans are not rare, they are common. The number of "friends" who washed their hands of their friend when they found out they were gay, the number of spouses who became hostile and vengeful towards the spouse they found out was trans, the number of relatives near and far who pointed the finger of judgement and said "you are a disgrace to our family" are legion. Among those strangers that churches and communities across our country will serve dinner to a week from now are thousands upon thousands of people who could instead be with their family and friends this week if people loved more than they judged.

There are a great many reasons why people are alone this Christmas, but the most tragic are those who are alone when they don't have to be. Every year people publish uplifting thoughts in which they express many noble wishes reflecting what they want for Christmas, whether it's a cure for all disease, or to feed all hungry children, or even world peace. I do not profess to offer a wish so high minded as that, because let's face it, such things are - however noble - also practical impossibilities in our often ugly world.

What I will offer is a wish for something that is entirely within our grasp to do, if we have the heart to do it. It's within the power of each and every one of us to whom it applies to live out the love exemplified by the One who's name is honored by the approaching holiday. While we sing about the love that was shown towards man by the arrival of a Savior, can we not bring ourselves to show otherworldly love ourselves? My Christmas wish is that every one of those "rejected and abused" people who are alone this year because who and what they are doesn't conform to the expectations you had for them, would be invited to come home.

When you sit around your Christmas feast next week, take a moment to look around the table and ask yourself "Who is not here? Why are they missing?" and most of all "How can I change that?"

Give it some thought, while there is yet time. Then do something about it.