I’m sitting here looking at a photo taken shortly before Christmas 2008. It’s a very good photo: dramatic and sharply focused. It’s a December afternoon in downtown San Diego: trees dotting a vast swath of sun-washed, empty parking lot. In the foreground, walking away from the camera, is my 11-year-old son. His head is bowed, and it’s because of what is in his hands: a chilled bottle of water and a brown paper lunch bag.
On the outside of the bag is a child’s Magic Marker drawing of a Christmas tree, and also a word: “Faith,” “Hope,” “Peace,” “Joy,” or “Love” — I’m not sure which, but I know it’s one of those. I know because I was there in my kitchen when my wife Deirdre wrote it on the bag and on the 30 or so other bags that received the same treatment. One by one, they’d been labeled with the name of some spiritual good, decorated with a traditional Christmas symbol — stars, wreaths, trees — and filled: an apple or an orange, a Baggie full of Fritos, a napkin, and a sandwich. Some sandwiches got turkey, some got ham, all got a slice of cheese, a broad leaf of iceberg lettuce, and a thin layer of mayonnaise.
Back to the photograph and my son’s bowed head. It’s bowed because he’s unhappy. This is not how he wants to be spending his Saturday afternoon, even if he does see the point in feeding the hungry. He’d rather be doing what he wants with his free time — and who wouldn’t? (Here I am reminded of a splendid bit from C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. The devil Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood that a great way to ensnare a man is to trick him into thinking his time is his own, so that every request made of him — regardless of its goodness — is an impingement, a source of irritation.)
These bagged lunches are bound for the homeless, you see, and my son would rather be doing this particular kindness from afar. It’s not like when he participates in the Christmas pageant for the old folks at Little Flower Haven on La Mesa Boulevard. There, he gets up in front of the crowd and says his lines loud and clear and generally brings delight, but as soon as it’s over, he gets to eat cookies and hang out with his fellow actors. He doesn’t have to, you know, talk to the Olds, the Strangers, and the Possibly Loopy.
Here, he has to look people in the eye. Here, he has to talk to people. And not just people — homeless people. Suffering people, who may be unfriendly, or too friendly, or smelly, or intoxicated, or crazy, or ungrateful, or just deeply embittered. Couldn’t he just do some jobs, get paid, and donate the money to charity? No, he could not. Because his father wants him to meet his Neighbor — the one Christ told him to love, the one lying in a ditch like the Jew found by the Good Samaritan. (G.K. Chesterton has a great bit on this in his essay “On the Institution of the Family”: “We have to love our neighbor because he is there.… He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us.”)
Many, many years ago, in my teens, I used to go to the Catholic Worker in Los Angeles to feed the poor on Skid Row, just minutes away from downtown Los Angeles and its luxury hotels. Here there were the poorest of the poor, but even more than this; here were people whose lives and hopes have been crushed, many of them fallen victim to drug and alcohol addiction, a small way of them dealing often with a lifetime of rejection, abuse, and the struggle with mental illness. We assembled there to feed the poor a Christmas Day lunch. The poor lined up outside and came into the hallway, with tables set in rows so people could sit down and have a meal. Inevitably, there were problems on the line, and Jeff Dietrich and his wife Catherine would calm things down. The faces are now a blur in my memory, but what I do remember are their tattered clothes and the fact that many of them obviously hadn’t been able to bathe in some time. And this despite the fact that the hotels just blocks away were probably only half full.
There were big vats to cook the soup; we used lots and lots of vegetables, carrots, celery, and chicken, and lots of spices. I remember pouring what I thought was sugar in my coffee and drinking, only to find out I poured the salt in; and I spit it out; which meant, I think, that I’d put the sugar in the soup. Not my best day, but I was a volunteer novice, especially as compared to those who worked the line each and every day. Making the big soups took quite a while, an hour or more; and the other Catholic Workers seemed to combine elements of recipes with on-the-spot quick decisions based on what leftover food they had gotten from the local markets. The big pots of soup fed hundreds and hundreds; how they always seemed to have just enough, we never knew. It was just as Jesus and Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day said (in her Loaves & Fishes), “He took the five loaves and the two fishes; and looking up to heaven, He blessed and brake and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitudes. And they did all eat and were filled.… Matthew 14:16-20.”
There were hundreds of homeless who stood in line. We who served them stood over vast pots, cooking up a marvelous meal. The Catholic Workers were an unlikely bunch. Part anarchist, part communitarian Christians — like during the time of Jesus, when the church was dedicated to nonviolence — their iconoclastic ways make it a small miracle that they are able to live together, serve the poor, and keep a monthly paper. The anarchism and communitarianism was of a strange sort, inspired by cofounder Peter Maurin, who wrote, “The best kind of government is self-government. The best kind of organization is self-organization.” Though the Catholic Worker desired governments to help, they believed that the people should do the works of mercy themselves.
And that’s why I insisted that my kids take a direct role in feeding the homeless that day. By the end, 30 people had lunch, and my son’s head wasn’t bowed. By the end, his head was buoyed up and he was smiling, glad he’d done it. Glad in an exhaling, amazed kind of way, as if he didn’t know quite what to make of what he was feeling. While I stood off in the distance, or across the street, he’d spoken with men and women, sober and drunk, happy and sad: greeting them, offering them lunch, saying goodbye and God bless you. (His younger brother and sister were smiling as well, having taken part in the same mission.) He even said we should do this more often.
And we did — one more time, not long after. And then we
didn’t do it again. The Christmas Spirit, God help me, faded away, at least as far as lunch distribution went. Life took on its normal shape, with its normal set of middle-class familial concerns closer to hand. Enough of “my time” had been taken up helping my son help his neighbors that I was relieved to have the whole business behind me. Still, when I look back, it’s clear that it was worth more than most of what I did last December. My son’s big-time Christmas present from 2008 sits in a box in the garage, a bunch of plastic and wires that lost its luster when it stopped working to perfection after a couple of months. A lot more time and effort went into it than ever went into bringing lunch to the homeless. And for what? Along with that niggling feeling, there was, once again, the whispered reminder that you really are happier when you bend your will to serve the happiness of others, that love really is the answer, and how many more Christmases are going to have to go by before you learn that simple lesson?
The famous Jewish German émigré Theodor Adorno, in his “Articles May Not Be Exchanged,” expressed the importance of gift-giving perhaps more poignantly than anyone else: “We are forgetting how to give presents….
Real giving had its joy in imagining the joy of the receiver. It means choosing, expending time, going out of one’s way, thinking of the other as a subject: the opposite of distraction… Every undistorted relationship…is a gift.”
The Christmas spirit, at its best, is filled with that spirit of giving. It’s a time to remember, a time to appreciate and be grateful for what we have in this life. When I think of my own life, many things are brought to mind. Before my conscious memory, I was the recipient of the gift of giving and care. After I was abandoned by my parents in New York, I was taken care of, along with my older brother and sister, by Catholic nuns in the City.
We associate Christmas these days so much with gift-giving. Yet when I think about the greatest gifts I’ve been given in my own life, they have not been material things. Perhaps my most memorable Christmas Eve, many years ago, was shared with my parents, in the most unlikely of places, a place I never would have imagined they would ever come to. During my years growing up, my parents, though Jewish atheists, celebrated Christmas as a kind of secular holiday. But festive occasions in my family were marred by my parents’ drug and alcohol addiction. Since I was a little kid, I knew that the day would come when I would take my kid brothers and sister from them to raise them in part myself. That day came when I was about 21. My parents screamed and yelled from far away, calling me every name in the book. Yet, a year later, on Christmas, they took me to their new home, an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I couldn’t believe it; it was indeed a Christmas miracle.
They told me that they had been dying from alcohol abuse and that, in retrospect, my taking my younger brothers and sister away had saved their life. That certainly wasn’t my intention at the time — my focus was on my younger brothers and sister — though I was pleased it had such a positive effect. My father went back to drinking — no great surprise there — but my mother, after some 50 years of drug and alcohol addiction, remains sober to this day. I didn’t grow up with her; in fact, I didn’t even see a picture of her or know if she was dead or alive until I was 11 — but her getting sober allowed me to have a relationship with her for the first time. That Christmas was thus the unveiling of the greatest Christmas present she could have ever given me: the mother I had never really had. The gift of friendship, of love and community, like that of the Christ, or of the prophets of the Old Testament, leading people from bondage out of Egypt. How resonant that story is, of love, of hope, of redemption. A good thing to keep in mind when we see our brethren this Christmas on the street corner holding signs asking for food, asking for work.
There’s that word: brethren. Echoes of James’s letter to his fellow Christians: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” And who is my brother or sister? Someone even closer to me than my neighbor (see above: Samaritan, Good).
But here’s the fun part, right at the end of that particular chapter from James: “Was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she welcomed the messengers and sent them out by a different route?” Rahab was not a Jew, one of God’s chosen race; Rahab was a prostitute living in Jericho. What did she do to earn this justification by works? She hid a couple of Jewish spies in her home, spies who were helping to prepare an invasion. A fallen woman sides with God’s people over her own for entirely selfish reasons (so she’ll be spared in the coming bloodshed), and it gets her mentioned right alongside Father Abraham in James’s treatment of faith and works. Ladies and gentlemen, this is why no Christian should be sorry to see the Christmas Spirit, along with all the generosity it entails, adopted in an institutional fashion by the wider world each December. You think it cheapens things to have nonbelievers feeling good about themselves for throwing a few dollars into the Salvation Army pot? Remember Rahab.
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.”
What’s that got to do with the price of eggs? More to the point, what’s that got to do with Ricky Bobby’s favorite Jesus, the Christmas Jesus with the golden fleece diapers? I mean, consider Dave Bry, who writes the “Public Apology” column for the online magazine The Awl. Recently, he apologized to God for not believing in Him. Take it, Dave: “I don’t mean to insult anyone who does. It’s an intellectual position, that’s all. I know the thought of You brings great comfort to many people. I realize lots of good gets done in Your name. Charity organizations, etc. You’ve inspired some great architecture, too. And books and sculpture and painting and music… But taking into consideration all the war and mass murder that people do for You, all the unbridgeable division and entrenchment of thought that irrational faith leads to, all the ending of discussion and diplomacy, all the forsaking of responsibility for human action, I happen to think the world would be a better place if no one believed in You. Even if You do exist. We’re better off thinking, even if incorrectly, that we’re on our own. Maybe people would take care of each other better if they believed they were really in charge. Maybe people would clean up after themselves.”
Except, well, maybe not. Because as the man says, without God, nothing is forbidden. And conversely, nothing much is required either. If we make our own meaning, who’s to say it has to include the poor bastard lying in a ditch by the side of the road, beaten and bleeding? That’s them over there, this is me over here, and my neighbor is the comfortable gentleman next door who knows to leave me alone — so I can go about my business and worship my private household gods. As Wallace puts it, “Here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough.”