My Turn: Working toward a kinder, more respectful society

For the Monitor
Published: 1/16/2022 7:01:25 AM
Modified: 1/16/2022 7:00:10 AM

As the season of peace on Earth, love, joy and goodwill gets packed away with the decorations until next year, a line from the song “Old City Bar” by Trans-Siberian Orchestra plays in my mind (it’s a touching song that always chokes me up).

“If you want to arrange it, this world you can change it. If we could somehow make this Christmas thing last, by helping a neighbor or even a stranger. To know who needs help, you need only just ask.”

The timeless question. How do we hold onto the spirit of Christmas throughout the year? I feel most of us would agree that peace, love, goodwill, generosity and kindness are qualities we all value, things we admire when we see them in others, things we hope others see in us. Listening to the songs, stories and messages that invoke the spirit of Christmas helps us reconnect with these positive feelings. They bring us joy and uplift our spirits.

Now, contrast those positive feelings with the negative messages we are regularly bombarded with the rest of the year — fear, anger, hatred, division, violence and threats of violence, selfishness and greed. It’s no wonder we want to hold onto the Christmas spirit.

Everyone I know would much rather live in a world of goodwill, respect, fairness, generosity and kindness than one of hatred and fear, which always leads to violence and suffering. Why, then, do we let ourselves get sucked into all that negativity when what we really want is peace and joy?

The short answer is the weakness of human nature. Fear and hatred are easy, and addictive. Take a minute to consider how much effort you need to put into being fearful. How much willpower do you need to hate others who are different? Contrast that with how much effort and willpower we need to be respectful, kind and generous to people we don’t consider part of our in-group.

That difference in effort is why we consider respect and kindness virtues and hatred and fear-mongering vices or deficiencies. From this perspective, we could think of hatred and fear-mongering as emotionally lazy. Kindness and respect take strength and work.

Unfortunately for holding onto the Christmas spirit, though, we can all become easily addicted to hatred and fear. Once our minds start down that path of ugliness and darkness, it’s hard to turn around. Just like a drug, hatred gives us energy. But it’s negative, destructive energy.

It doesn’t help that there are unscrupulous people who deal in pushing fear and hatred because it increases their power, control and wealth. When our minds are consumed with fear and hatred, it’s harder to think rationally and reasonably, making us more susceptible to being controlled. The manipulators know this and use it to their advantage. The rest of us lose happiness and emotional wellbeing while they profit from the divisiveness.

How do we regain control of our emotions and hold onto peace, love and goodwill? Turn off the hatred. Tune out the fear-mongering. Block out the people who tell us we need to separate ourselves from people who don’t think exactly like us. As the message in the Christmas spirit reminds us, we’re happier and better when we respect and care for each other, even ones who are different from us.

It occurred to me that part of the reason for the strife in society stems from making ourselves too one-dimensional. The closer we tie ourselves to a single identity, a single group, the easier we get consumed by the darkness of hatred. We lose connections with others. We lose community.

Let’s not allow anyone to define who we are, not even a group to which we belong. To avoid becoming nothing more than a cardboard cutout, let’s free ourselves to move between the various parts of our identity. This freedom of connection reduces conflict and increases happiness.

There are people, however, who think they can move closer to happiness by pushing other people down. It may seem like an improvement because others are now lower than themselves. But if we’re all just kicking each other down, is anyone really getting closer to reaching our higher values? To rise out of the miserable dark side of human nature, we need to lift each other up.

Sure, all of this sounds idealistic and unrealistic. There really are things to be upset about and to fear. Whether we like it or not, there are bad people in the world. However, just because we can’t reach the ideal doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try getting closer to it. As the proverb goes, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.

How much could we reduce bad behavior if we all worked harder at treating everyone with kindness, respect and fairness? We might not be able to get rid of it all, but we could surely do better than we currently are.

People with the strength and courage to take the first steps will get us closer to our goal of a kinder, more respectful society. To hold onto the Christmas spirit, we need people to reach out a hand to others instead of shaking a fist at them. Who is ready to join together to spread goodwill?

(Aaron Baker lives in Pembroke.)

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