EVEN AS FAR BACK AS 1611, THE GREAT POET John Donne put down in writing his worries of what would happen if everyone simply became a nation of individuals. In using terms like, “all coherence is gone,” “all is just supply,” and “every man is alone,” he laid out for his generation, in strong poetic flourish, the need for humanity to stay in touch with one another, to plan as though their collective life mattered equally as much as their personal pursuits.
Donne had a point then, as he clearly does now. In his time, villages were emptying out as the masses departed for the great cities. And yet he witnessed that the residents of those great locations seemed eerily out of touch with one another. He wondered how it could be, since they all lived in such close proximity. He grew concerned about what he termed “the culture of separation.”
Much of what Donne had to say has come to pass, whereas other observations proved erroneous. Yet, every once in a while citizens discover the ability to come together in such a remarkable fashion that we wonder what the old poet would think. Every year in December comes the “Great Gathering” – that time when citizens who have never met extend seasons greetings, where they skate, eat, drink, walk, worship, buy, and give, in a manner that one would think was orchestrated.
Except it’s not. Something else is afoot, some elevation of human nature that reminds us that community is not only possible but actually still alive. It’s almost as if, even for the briefest of moments, the social world is reconstituted in such as way as to be more kind and inclusive. It goes further yet, as people start talking about ending poverty, helping the poor, finding a home for the homeless or support of those faced with mental illness. It’s as if in that magic period of time we live up to our potential. If that spirit resided in us every day, the sense is that we could accomplish our greatest goals and overcome our challenging obstacles. It is precisely because of such a shared spirit that we can smile at Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, because we know we can beat back the efforts of the Grinch and bring our communities back together even after the worst has hit us.
Every great and redeeming story in the world could fit within the Christmas season’s grand narrative, for it is the time when the world of ideals bends closer to us than any other occasion, when even in the smallest ways we act as though others matter and we matter to them.
We become very proficient at putting out deeper problems in the background. But our hearts expand enough in December that we bring them to the foreground and actually embrace them. Or, as author Anne Perry beautifully states it:
“You wanted a peaceful, comfortable Christmas, with all reminders of poverty, injustice, or other people’s griefs well out of sight, so as not to disturb your pleasure. That isn’t what Christmas is about. Christmas is about offering hope to all people, not just those like ourselves. Christmas is about everyone: rich or poor, friend or stranger. The moment you exclude anyone, you exclude yourself.”
So, on this the season of the Great Gathering, let’s live as though we mean it, that a shared and equitable humanity is worth it, that the presence of the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, combine their efforts in ways that make us alive again to our possibilities. This is the season for it. Merry Christmas.