Still, the world is much too much with us, as I am reminded every holiday season. The catalogs start in the fall: Creative Playthings, Toys 2 Grow On, Magic Cabin, MindWare…the list is endless. The toys advertised are clever, engaging, and developmentally sound, so that you almost forget they’re toys: hundreds of toys, each with its own bit of tantalizing ad copy. Thanks to my wife, who has to deal with the kids more than I do, most of it goes directly into the recycling bin. But come Christmastime, Daddy throws a spanner in the works, lets a few copies slip into grubby little hands, slinks away smiling as the pens come out and the circles get made around every third or fourth item.
Why is Daddy smiling as he slinks away from the cries of “I want this! And this! And this!”? Because of damnable nostalgia. Because he remembers going through the Montgomery Ward catalog, circling GI Joe and Star Wars action figures, and later, the Sharper Image, putting stars next to the three-runner sled with a steering wheel and a handbrake. (The only present I ever asked for that met with the flat reply, “It’s too expensive.” And yet I got it. Best present ever. Because I wasn’t supposed to get it, and did?) These are happy memories for me, one of two children born to a middle-class family in 1970s America. I’m a normal dad — I want my kids to have happy memories like mine. I want to give to the ones I love. And that’s good.
What’s probably not so good — what’s probably closer to a waste of time — is the getting. Yeah, I remember the sled. But would I have felt unloved without it? Hell, no. I had awesome parents — the kind who took me out at five years old so that I could Christmas shop for people who weren’t me. For one reason or another, I’ve never done that with my kids. I’ve never set up a schedule of jobs they can do during Advent to earn money to buy presents for their mother and siblings. I have never made them partners in Christmas. Song lyrics from the Cowboy Junkies come to mind: “Living’s mostly wasting time/ And I waste my share of mine.”
And that’s the waste of time. Even if I try to defend myself with the idea that children learn by example and will therefore learn to give by watching me give to them. (An idea that seems to me dubious at best: there is no satiety to the appetite for stuff we don’t really need, and if I just keep pouring into that unfillable hole, what’s going to shift the dynamic?) Sometimes, it’s worse than a waste. I’m thinking of the fear that this or that child will sulk through Christmas because they didn’t get that One Special Thing, sullying the day for everyone else, helpless with misery, unable to enter into the ocean of goodness that wells up all around them. That’s right; there have been times when I actually fear this. What the hell? How did I become so in thrall to my kids — and worse, to my kids’ worst selves? They’re good kids, and I try to be a good father to them. And yet, this is what I find myself up against. This is Christmas, damn it! What happened?
No, seriously, what happened? Why haven’t I taught my kids to give? Because that part isn’t nostalgic for me. I remember the thrill of opening presents on Christmas morning as a kid, but it wasn’t until I grew up that I started remembering what I gave to people. (And started forgetting what they gave me.) Mind you, I know I should teach it; I know that the child is the father of the man. I know that effort is what makes us grow, that human excellence is rooted in habitual action, regardless of the memories that nostalgia coughs up. What is my excuse? I don’t have the time. Because Christmas is a Grand Hassle. Because I’m doing all this other stuff to make Christmas great, and I’m tired. What a sack. And what do I do come Christmas Eve? Complain to my wife that our kids are getting too much stuff.
It is hard, in the commercial culture we live in, so mistaken with the Christmas spirit, to remember the lack of importance of material things, above a certain threshold of wealth, and to remember the love that instead is found in community.
I’m again thinking of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, who were full of seeming paradoxes: condemning poverty and embracing it, living a life dedicated to uplifting the poor while voluntarily being poor themselves. Peter Maurin expressed it best in his “Case for Utopia”:
“The world would be better off
if people tried to become better,
and people would be better
if they stopped trying to become better off.
For when everyone tries to become better off,
nobody is better off.
But when everyone tries to become better
everyone is better off.
Everyone would be rich
if nobody tried to become richer,
and nobody would be poor
if everyone tried to be the poorest.
And everybody would be what he ought to be
if everybody tried to be
what he wants the other fellow to be.”
As crazy as these words may seem to some, they anticipated by nearly a century a growing body of evidence that shows clearly that even as the advanced Western countries have become richer, they are no happier for that. A useful notion to remember this Christmas season, in between our running about, when we see more and more people homeless, begging on the street for a small meal or some honest work.
The late novelist David Foster Wallace put it this way in an address to the Kenyon College graduating class of 2005: “And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.”