Let us open our doors and our hearts this Christmas

(24 Dec 2014)

There is a saying that Christmas brings out the best in us. Warmth, hospitality, humour, welcome, solidarity, generosity, concern for others, conviviality, sociability — these are all Christmas virtues and Irish virtues.

They are values and attributes worth cherishing in these times that are harsh for many in society.

However, if we are honest, Christmas also often brings out the worst in many of us in the form of waste, conflict, severe intoxication and violence, leading to grief and misery.

In recent years, society has developed a keener sense of the individual. We have learned to respect individual difference and come to understand the necessity to provide for individual need.

It is good that we make a point of striving to protect individual rights and individual lives; and our response to individuals we perceive to be hurt, or in need, or at risk are generous and spontaneous. There is much good work being done by Focus Ireland and many other organisations and people in society.

But I fear that, as a society, we also focus on the individual in ways that are not so positive. We live increasingly individuated lives. Instead of feeling part of a community or a neighbourhood, many people are isolated in their homes.

Unlike in the past, it is now the case that many people often do not know their neighbours. And the most vulnerable people among us are often the most isolated.

Today, many people find it increasingly difficult to cope. Everything is too big, too fast, too much, too overwhelming. The natural response to overload can be to close ourselves off, to mind our own business.

This results in an imbalance. It leads to isolation. Technology also has a role to play. The advances in IT and social media have had many benefits. But what have we lost? If you step on a bus or go into a restaurant and look around where once you would have seen people talking, now you often see people locked into their mobile phone or computer. Connecting to others online, they are removed and isolated from the very people right beside them in the present moment.

Community is breaking down at so many levels. Much is due to the recession and funding cuts, but we must also look in the mirror and acknowledge what we are doing.

All this can leads to changes in behaviour. People who think of themselves as caring may ignore people around us who are elderly or ill or simply lonely, assuming that they are somebody else’s responsibility.

But they are not. We are all responsible for each other. That is what community means.

If we hide from our responsibility, if we refuse to take ownership of our communities, if we always assume that someone else will do it — what we will end up with is a conflicted, fearful and obsessively competitive society consisting of self-absorbed and isolated individuals.

As individuals, we cannot change the world, but we can change ourselves — and that is how the world starts to get changed.

One way we can start to make a difference is to speak up for what is right and what is true. This takes courage. It takes courage to disagree with government policies in a certain sort of polite company.

It takes courage to stand up for immigrants or people who are homeless at a certain type of party. It takes courage, but it is worth doing, because that is how we can gradually win over hearts and minds.

Christmas is about the birth of one who risked everything. Jesus set no store by personal comfort zones. He had no interest in status. He asked the hard questions and he stood up for the ‘wrong’ people.

Hard as it may be socially, there are great spiritual rewards for being willing to take up our responsibilities, for living with integrity and free of guises, for becoming the women and the men we are capable of being, spiritual adults, free. You don’t have to be a Christian to believe in these values or to want to help build community.

I believe to do this we must reach out to others. A kind word, or a hand offering help, not only helps people who are lonely and in need, it also helps the person offering the help.

When we have broken through the propriety and protocols that collude to keep us in our individual cocoons of the self and to prevent us from reaching out to grasp our mutual responsibilities, we are forever free. We can live with our heads up and our hearts unbroken, whatever our losses, and no one can best us.

That is what living out the Christmas spirit means: Taking responsibility for ourselves and for others, living as part of a community rather than as isolated and fearful individuals.

Let’s take the commitment to the Christmas spirit that we are so proud of in this country seriously. Let us open our doors and our hearts this Christmas, invite the stranger in — into community with us and our families, to live as true neighbours who take responsibility for each other.

By sharing our mutual responsibility with joy, we can truly experience happiness this Christmas, and take the first steps to changing the world.

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