By Joni Halpern
In the chill of Christmas nights, when we scour the darkness for colorful lights, when we hold the hands of our little children or grandchildren straining to see the cheerful twinkling displays, when we take selfies in front of dazzling, glittering decorations, it’s hard not to feel hope that, at least for a Christmas moment, we might be on to something decent within ourselves.
Religious, spiritually non-religious, non-spiritual non-religious – it really doesn’t matter. We are trained by season after season of songs, stories, customs and beliefs to expect more of ourselves as human being during this winter holiday than at any other time of year. It’s kind of like an annual exercise in the expansion of our hearts.
But after years of being lectured by our politicians about “personal responsibility,” “playing by the rules,” and giving only to the “truly needy,” we have begun to expect much less of ourselves. We have become expert at judging the worthiness of others. Are the homeless really trying, or are they happier answering to no one, camping along the rivers, spreading hepatitis to innocent victims who work hard to take care of their own financial responsibilities? Why do the poor spend so much time in poverty? Don’t they know that if they stopped buying sodas and potato chips, they could feed their kids abundantly? Don’t they know that if they saved five dollars a week, in 10 years, they would have $2,600?
What about the disabled? Do they have to have every little contraption to make their lives easier?
And the elderly? Is it our fault medical science is allowing them to live longer? Shouldn’t they have thought about their old age survival way back when? How about the sick? Well, there’s always the alternative.
Despite the judgments many of us make about those in need, we do still want to enjoy our Christmas season without guilt. So we go in search of meaningful little exercises that will keep the Source of All Goodness in the Universe, whatever we conceive this to be, favorably inclined to bless us in the future. We may serve food to the homeless, give away ancient canned goods that someone mistakenly purchased for a recipe we never made, offer a few bucks to an ill-clad fellow standing with a sign at the intersection, donate some money to an organization, or do any number of other acts of kindness and generosity.
Then we go home to our groaning tables and numerous gifts the presence of which we perceive as evidence that we are blessed by some force that mysteriously denied this blessing to others.
What shall we make of the sparse tables and bare-bone budgets of thousands of our local residents and millions of our fellow Americans? What shall we make of the children living in tents and the elderly, sick and disabled being evicted? What can we do? We can’t help them all; we’re just individuals. We can’t support everyone. We can only do what we can do. That is a mantra we all repeat.
But let’s say most of us, even if not all of us, wanted to help. What if we said we don’t feel good about leaving so many people out in the cold. We know we can’t address this huge problem from our individual pockets. Some of the need is so great we can’t even do it as a neighborhood or a city.
We could do it, however, as a nation.
We could say that instead of $700 billion going to war and the preparation for war, we would shave a billion off that and put it into assistance to cities that had a plan to help the poor and homeless.
We could say that instead of permitting corporations every possible tax advantage at the expense of the rest of us, we could trim one or two of those and send that money to assist the disabled.
We could tell our political leaders that we won’t accept a tax plan that leaves millions of our fellow citizens out in the cold, that promises to rob so many of health care, that ensures the disabled will be unable to survive, and that buries the promise of living-wage jobs beneath layers of lies.
We could say that.
We could say we shall not accept that Americans, who do their best without making a killing in income, must battle each other for crumbs from a tax plan meant to destroy the very programs upon which millions of Americans rely.
We could say all of this in a letter, an email, a phone call, a visit, an open plea to someone in power.
And then we could join hands at our holiday table and ask the powers that be in this great universe to help us win this terrible battle for the sanctity of the human spirit, the same spirit that lives in each one of us, needy or not.
Next Christmas will be harder for all of us if the tax plan passes. There is not one ounce of compassion in that plan, not one ounce of economic salvation for those in need or for those who will be. Maybe next year, even the lights and songs and customs of the holidays will not be able to bring us that special feeling we crave at this time of year – that feeling that by tending to those in need, we can overcome the selfishness that afflicts all of us when we are afraid, the selfishness that has turned us against one another and convinced us we can only survive by protecting ourselves and our assets.
Maybe this will be the last holiday season before the light of hope in our humanity goes out.
Merry Christmas, my fellow Americans.
Joni Halpern has been a lawyer for the poor in San Diego for more than 20 years. She has served low-income families and individuals throughout San Diego County as a staff lawyer for the ACLU, the Legal Aid Society, director of a grassroots nonprofit, and now as a sole practitioner. She has been a San Diego resident almost all her life.