Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays
These two words have the power to fill me with hope and gratitude, no matter the pain of the moment. And it is in that spirit that I say “Merry Christmas” to all of you who celebrate the holiday, and a hearty and unambiguous “Happy Holidays” to all of you who do not.
When I hear “Merry Christmas,” it often has the power to transport me across time.
I can see myself as an eager child, gathering with extended family, faces full of life and now mostly long gone. I am awaiting the few gifts that my parents could afford to give in a house small of size but full of love and opportunity.
I can see the years of my own young family. I am often rushing back from a distant assignment to share the holiday with my wife, children, and other friends and family. Life in those moments always felt hopeful, especially in the excited eyes of the young.
I think of Christmas times visiting troops stationed overseas knowing that they would be far away when their children and families gathered around the tree. And I remember knowing that some in combat zones might never return. I always pray for them.
And I feel the Christmas of the present, the second consecutive year amid a global pandemic. I am thinking of all those who have fallen to the deadly disease and how many empty seats there will be at Christmas dinners. I think of canceled plans and gatherings that will never occur, especially now with a new surging variant. There is great sadness for many, including likely some of you. I send all who have suffered and are suffering my heartfelt sympathies.
I send a deep thanks to all the healthcare workers, the nurses, doctors, orderlies, lab workers, and all the others who now face another Christmas of stress and surging cases. That your work has been made more difficult by those who would politicize vaccines and public health measures is particularly tragic.
I am grateful for all of you who do the hard work to keep our world functioning. I see all of you teachers whose jobs, never easy and so important, have been made so much more challenging by remote learning and the traumas the children have been going through. I see also the grocery clerks, delivery drivers, warehouse and factory workers, and all the others whose labor keeps food and goods moving.
I am also full of gratitude for the scientists who developed remarkable vaccines in record time and are working to develop new therapeutics and versions of the vaccines to address this wiley viral enemy. Many of us literally owe you our lives.
As I sit in Austin Texas, back living full-time in the state into which I was born more than nine decades ago, I am deeply grateful for a life of good fortune. I have been blessed with family, health, and a lifetime of work that I have loved. And that includes having this venue to share our difficult moment in history with all of you. This newsletter fills me with more happiness than you could imagine.
Among the many joys of life of which this virus has robbed us is the power that comes from gathering with others.
I think of time in the pews of church, my meager singinging abilities uplifted and amplified by all around me. I think of Christmas parties and meaningful conversations with the many people who have enriched my life. I think of bustling stores filled with smiling faces - smiles now necessarily hidden by facemasks.
What I hope we can do with Steady is create a place for people to gather, even if only digitally, to share this life and world together. We talk mostly about the challenges we face, and for good reason. They are grave and urgent. But I also hope we can share some of the happiness of life and remind each other that we are not alone. That is only possible because of all of you. So thank you once again for joining us on this quixotic journey.
Finally, in this already-too-long Christmas note, if you will indulge me, I wanted to share an excerpt from the “Empathy” essay from our book What Unites Us. It is about this time of year and one of my most formative memories from my childhood. The setting is the dirt street on which I lived on what was then the distant outskirts of Houston, Texas during the Great Depression.
Across our street was a poor frame house in a state of semicollapse. A half block down lived a family who didn’t even have a house, just a corrugated tin roof held up by four posts in the corners and one in the middle. Their floor was dirt. Nobody in either of these families had a job. That was not unusual in our neighborhood during the Depression...
The father of the family in the dilapidated house had lost a leg. Exactly how he’d lost it was unclear, but the prevailing belief was that it had happened after a misjudged leap from a boxcar. Riding the rails was not uncommon then as a means to get to your destination, but it was uncommonly dangerous. His condition brought a crushing change to his fortune and that of his family. Before the accident, the father had been a day laborer for hire, a man with a shovel who could dig you a ditch. But there wasn’t much demand for a one-legged ditchdigger. He had likely not gotten good medical attention after the accident, and I remember him clearly as a frail man with a bad cough. He, his wife, and their four or five children had no money. Zero. They eventually applied for some form of relief, but it came only sporadically.
The family under the tin roof had a passel of kids as well, maybe as many as six. I remember thinking how elderly the father was, although he was probably much younger than he looked. A hard life will do that to a person. For some reason this other family, despite their abject poverty, didn’t seem to qualify for the government’s new “relief” program (otherwise known as “the dole”). Perhaps they didn’t know how to fill out the paperwork. Public support was far less systematic than it is today. Around the neighborhood, this family had a reputation for often being in prayer, and as a boy I wondered how God could be so seemingly blind to such suffering.
The neighborhood tried as best it could to help these families stay alive. If we had leftovers after supper, we would walk them across the street. One of my earliest impressions was taking that short journey with my father. You might think that these families were humiliated by the offerings, but there is no dignity in being hungry. And there was no judgment or disdain on the part of those offering assistance. No one wondered why those neighbors weren’t working, and no one passed moral judgments on their inability to fend for themselves. We understood that, in life, some are dealt aces, some tens, and some deuces.
Food wasn’t the only assistance we provided. One morning I watched my uncle John dig a ditch from our house across the gravel road to the ramshackle house. The family had been unable to pay their water bills, and my uncle was good with pipes. So he connected the two houses, and we shared our water with them. These acts of kindness were also not unusual among neighbors. Necessity was a great motivator for innovation and empathy.
On Christmas Eve, my father and uncle pooled their money, meager though it was, and bought toys for the families living in the dilapidated house and under the tin roof. I remember a rag doll, a small wooden train, and for some reason a tambourine — why these details are so vivid I couldn’t say. We waited until after the children had gone to bed to give the gifts quietly to the parents, so that when those children woke up the next morning they would not think Santa had forsaken them. That was the hope, anyway.
What sticks with me more than even that act of kindness was how my mother talked to me about it. I was an inquisitive child (perhaps not surprising considering my later path in life), and I was always asking questions. So I asked my mother why we gave those families gifts at Christmas when we ourselves didn’t have much. I remember then answering for myself: “It was because we felt sorry for them, right?”
“We do not feel sorry for them,” my mother said sternly. “We understand how they feel.” It was a lesson that is so seared in my mind, I can see her face and I can hear her tone of voice as if it were yesterday.
May we all endeavor this holiday season, and in the new year and all the challenging times sure to follow, to try to “understand how they feel.” This cannot be a recipe for false equivalence. It does not mean sacrificing one’s own beliefs. Rather it is a realization that we are bound together by a common humanity and the more we can recognize that in ourselves and others, the more we can go about doing the hard work of making this world a better place.
As I have read your comments here on Steady over the past year, I see a community of empathy, and thus hope. So thank you once more.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all.
Please note that in the days ahead, we plan to step away a bit from the keyboards and social media feeds to spend some time reflecting, sharing moments with loved ones, and preparing a bit in mind and spirit for the year ahead. So the Steady posts may be a bit more sporadic than usual. But we are not going anywhere; we promise, we’ll be in touch. (Be on the lookout for a special “Smile for a Christmas Eve” post.)