War on Christmas, Diversity, and Secularism

Americans have always been divided over morality, politics and religion

Fresno Bee, December 1, 2017

Our country seems more divided than ever. Recent polls from the Pew Center and the Washington Post make this clear. The Post concludes that seven in 10 Americans say we have “reached a dangerous low point” of divisiveness. A significant majority of Americans think our divisions are as bad as they were during the Vietnam War.

But let’s be honest, we have always been divided. Free people always disagree about morality, politics and religion. We disagree about abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, drug legalization, pornography, the death penalty and a host of other issues. We also disagree about taxation, inequality, government regulation, race, poverty, immigration, national security, environmental protection, gun control and so on.

Beneath our moral and political disagreements are deep religious differences. Atheists want religious superstitions to die out. Theists think we need God’s guidance. And religious people disagree among themselves about God, morality and politics.

As an example, consider the so-called “war on Christmas.” President Trump declared victory in the war on Christmas this week during a speech in St. Charles, Missouri. Standing in front of American flags and Christmas trees, he said “You don’t see Merry Christmas any more. With Trump as your president, we are going to be celebrating Merry Christmas again and it’s going to be done with a big beautiful tax cut.”

DISAGREEMENT IS AS DEEP AS CHRISTMAS ITSELF.

Some will cheer this on as a triumphant moment in the culture wars. Others will say, “bah humbug,” claiming that the war on Christmas is fake news. And others will wonder what tax cuts have to do with the birth of Christ.

Christmas has always generated controversy. Different Christian traditions celebrate it on different days. Some Christians – the Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example – do not celebrate Christmas at all. They point out that the apostles did not celebrate Christ’s birth. They view Christmas as a pagan celebration.

Disagreement is as deep as Christmas itself. The Christian “good news” was viewed as fake news by the ancient Romans. The history of Christianity is full of heretics and dissenters who offered alternative facts. Each religious sect claims special access to the truth. Each views the other as delusional.

And of course, we disagree about the value of disagreement. Some value diversity of opinion. They are interested in new ideas and interpretations. Others see diversity as a decadent sign of liberty run amok. They resist change and avoid innovation.

And so it goes. Social cohesion is rare. So let’s not be surprised by our divisions. The ideal of a cohesive social, political and religious identity is a myth that creates frustrated expectations. People disagree about important stuff. We always have – and probably, we always will.

The desire for social cohesion is a pipe dream, cloaked in sepia-toned nostalgia. It is fun to imagine a Norman Rockwell Christmas scene. But life is not a painting or a Christmas card. We change, argue and diverge.

WE SHOULD VIEW OUR PRESENT DISAGREEMENTS
AS A SIGN OF THE HEALTH OF OUR SECULAR SYSTEM.

There is wisdom in admitting this fact. We might stop hyperventilating when we realize that the current crisis is nothing new. It is wise to stop expecting conformity.

It is also wise to support safeguards that protect liberty against oppressive power. The Christmas story includes a warning about political oppression in the presence of Herod the Great, the murderous king. Of course, such warnings are routinely ignored in the effort to purge heretics and dissenters.

Our secular system safeguards us against would-be Herods. But secularism means that disagreement will persist. This does not mean we should give up on arguing about the truth. But we must admit that disagreement is part of the human condition.

In fact, we should view our present disagreements as a sign of the health of our secular system. People are free to criticize or praise the president, the Congress and Christmas itself. This is not true in other parts of the world.

Freedom leads to controversy. Freedom without disagreement would be paltry and phony. Along with the freedom to say “Merry Christmas” we also have the freedom to say “Happy Hanukah” or even “bah humbug.” Take your pick. Stake your claim. Realize that other people will say different things. And be thankful that in our country the war on Christmas is merely a war of words.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article187350558.html

Tax Cuts and The Class Divide

Is our economy naughty or nice when workers face hard toil and wealthy ease into riches?

Fresno Bee, November 24, 2017

The class divide in our country becomes apparent this time of year. The affluent celebrate with a binge of buying. The working class is busy stocking shelves, running cash registers and waiting tables, thankful for the overtime. The homeless suffer on the margins, begging for handouts on the side of the road.

These disparities are worth considering as the country considers tax reform. The details are yet to be determined. But most agree that tax reform will make rich people richer.

Ironically, not all rich people think that this is a good idea. A group of 400 wealthy people – including Steven Rockefeller and George Soros – recently signed an open letter to Congress arguing against tax cuts for the wealthy

This letter singles out efforts to eliminate or reduce the estate tax as an example of unneeded reform. The estate tax helps to redistribute private wealth, taking it from wealthy families and using it for public projects. The estate tax is only an issue for the richest Americans. According to the Washington Post only about 5,000 families are affected by the estate tax.

The working class does not possess enough wealth for it to pay this tax. The median net worth of American families is about $80,000. The estate tax only affects couples with more than $11 million in assets.

Those disparate numbers indicate the inequalities that exist in our economy. One recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies claims that the three richest Americans own more wealth than the entire bottom half of the American population. And the combined wealth of the top 400 people on the Forbes list of richest people is more than the bottom 64 percent combined.

The Christmas season seems an especially bad time to consider exacerbating wealth disparities. Scrooge and Grinch remind us of the dangers of greed and the need for charity. The Christian gospels teach that we have a special obligation to care for the poor, to give to those who beg, and to avoid the worship of wealth.

Of course, the critique of wealth is counter-cultural. We live in a casino culture. We all seem to hope that somehow we will strike it rich. We don’t view wealth as a sin. Instead we hope it will trickle down. And we are not worried about fitting the camel of wealth through the eye of the moral needle.

One significant social problem is that wealth disparities tend to become magnified. Unbridled capitalism tends to concentrate wealth. Those with the most money earn the most money.

And much of what the wealthy earn requires little actual work. The capitalist puts his money to work for him. A fortunate few inherit their wealth and live off the fruits of their parent’s labor. The rest of us work and save. Many are one paycheck or one medical emergency away from homelessness.

This reward structure seems upside down. We might think that those who work the hardest should earn the most. We might also suppose that those who do the most essential or dangerous work should be paid the most.

From this point of view, there is something shameful about living off an inherited estate. From this perspective, farmworkers, teachers and police should earn generous rewards. But the reality is that the working class struggles to make a living, while the fortunate few enjoy financial security.

Shoppers crowd into JCPenney on Thanksgiving afternoon in the quest for Black Friday deals. The holiday shopping season brings forth the income disparities that exist in America, says Bee ethics columnist Andrew Fiala. He notes that the working class need special deals to afford higher-end goods; the rich can buy whenever they choose. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA Fresno Bee file

The holiday shopping frenzy reminds us how divided our economy is. The wealthy don’t fight the crowds for a Black Friday deal. They buy what they want when they want it. It is the members of the working class who need a bargain. Teachers and farmworkers elbow each other aside to get a door-buster deal, while the wealthy roll their eyes.

None of this really makes any sense. In a humane world, the homeless would be housed. In a moral economy, hard-working people wouldn’t need to work overtime to afford Christmas gifts and rich people wouldn’t simply live off inherited wealth.

The dream of a fair and decent world may seem too much to hope for. But this is, after all, a season of hope. It is also a great time to ask whether our economy is naughty or nice.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article186350658.html

Wishful thinking at Christmas

At Christmas, maybe a little wishful thinking is OK

Fresno Bee, December 24, 2016

Much of life depends upon voluntary suspension of disbelief. We often set truth and reality aside to play in the fields of fantasy.

Perhaps we are too gullible. Fake news floods our screens. We are awash in bunkum and balderdash. Major dictionaries picked “surreal” and “post-truth” as words of the year for 2016.

Science and logic help us distinguish fact from fiction. But this problem is psychological. We enjoy our humbug. Sensational hoaxes are much more fun than reality. And the will to believe provides us with wonder and joy.

In 1897, the New York Sun famously declared, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” The editor – with the fantastic name Frances Pharcellus Church – explained, “The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn?”

“Of course not,” he said. “But that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.”

Mr. Church concluded that faith, fancy, poetry, love and romance reveal the beauty and glory of the world. These things, like Santa Claus himself, are “real and abiding.”

This inspiring essay would fail a critical-thinking class. Lack of proof is not proof. Wishful thinking does not make things true. Imagined wonders are not real just because we want them to be.

A LIFE OF PURE, UNADULTERATED REALITY WOULD BE DISMAL AND DULL.
THE COSMOS CARES LITTLE FOR OUR HAPPINESS. BUT THIS EMPTY UNIVERSE ALSO CONTAINS CHRISTMAS.

And yet, we do not live by truth alone. We love our illusions. We are fascinated by fables and fantasy. Poetry transports us. Music moves us. The unreal worlds of television, film and literature fill our empty hours.

A life of pure, unadulterated reality would be dismal and dull. The cosmos cares little for our happiness. But this empty universe also contains Christmas.

The miracle of birth cannot be reduced to mere biology. Love, beauty and joy transcend material reality. Generosity and forgiveness can break long cycles of violence and hatred. But these wonders cannot be enjoyed unless we believe in them.

On Christmas Eve, the will to believe takes center stage. Christmas stories hinge upon the crisis of faith of an incredulous child. Belief in the unbelievable empowers Santa and his sleigh. Credulity is the ticket to the Christmas wonderland.

The same is true of art. Music is merely sound and rhythm. Poetry is scribbles on a page. Films are flickering, two-dimensional images. We must allow ourselves to be enchanted by these things. And when we give in to the illusion, we encounter meaning that transcends the material world.

Religion and politics also require suspension of disbelief. Bread and wine are transformed. Flags and insignia are not mere cloth. We encounter the sacred and sublime through a leap of faith.

It is easy to dismiss this as humbug. A cynical Scrooge will complain that love is hormonal, justice is power, and truth is the echo of a lie well told. Critical reason bursts the bubbles of the false and fantastic.

THE CHALLENGE IS TO STEER A MIDDLE COURSE. WE NEED TO KEEP WONDER AND HOPE ALIVE.
BUT WE ALSO NEED TO KEEP OUR HANDS ON OUR WALLETS.

But we do not live by reason alone. Poets and playwrights know this, as do shysters and charlatans. And therein lies a significant problem. Like other artists, the con artist plays upon our credulity. He sells us a pack of lies, which we gladly pay for.

The challenge is to steer a middle course. We need to keep wonder and hope alive. But we also need to keep our hands on our wallets.

There are times when it is appropriate to set reality aside and celebrate the play of the imagination. Christmas is surely one of those times. We sing the songs and tell the tales, weaving a fantasy that glows in the child’s wondering eyes. F.P. Church rightly celebrates “the glad heart of childhood.”

We cannot live every day as if it were Christmas. The adult world includes violence, hatred, stupidity and ignorance. Sober thought, grounded in reality, is the cure for these maladies.

But despair is also a problem. Wonder and hope are often in short supply. And cynicism pinches our hearts.

So yes, Virginia, we need to believe in Santa. Tomorrow we’ll be back to battling bull. But today we play with the fairies, creating a world of generosity and love for our children to enjoy.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article122726694.html

Love and hate at Christmas time

Love and hate at Christmas time

Fresno Bee, December 3, 2016

Hate is growing. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that hate crimes have increased since the November election. The Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno received hateful threats that mentioned Donald Trump. But hate already was rising before Trump’s election.

According to the FBI, hate crimes increased 6 percent in 2015. And hate goes both ways: Anti-Trump protests, vandalism and graffiti are a problem. Trump’s star on the Hollywood walk of fame has been chiseled and defaced.

We are in the middle of an ever-increasing hate-storm.

The Kellogg company pulled its advertising from Breitbart News, citing disagreement with Breitbart’s pro-Trump values. Breitbart ran a headline saying Kellogg “declares hate for 45,000,000 readers.” Breitbart’s editor-in-chief said, “If you serve Kellogg’s products to your family, you are serving up bigotry at your breakfast table.”

Breitbart has called for a Kellogg boycott. Will we now suspiciously eye one another in the grocery store? The fight over Fruit Loops seems absurd. But it is also symbolic of our acrimonious era.

An “us vs. them” mindset is developing. We look for allies, while fearing everyone else. Emotions are frayed. We become wary and worried. Every glance, action and word seems pregnant and portentous. A spark can easily cause this powder keg to snap, crackle and pop.

Hate, fear and violence form an unholy trinity that undermines stable and harmonious social life. These evils provoke a tit-for-tat logic. We fear those who fear us. Those we hate hate us in return. Each turn of the ratchet of fear and hate creates an atmosphere in which violence becomes likely.

We need to stop it. When asked about outbreaks of hate and violence on 60 Minutes, President-elect Trump said he is saddened by it. He said, “If it helps, I will say this: Stop it!”

Yes, it does help. We all need to say it loudly. Stop the hate. Stop the violence.

We desperately need de-escalation, reconciliation and human kindness. It sounds naïve, but the simple truth is that the world needs love. We need trust, communal feeling, generosity and hospitality. And more of us need to say to the haters, “Stop it.”

Time magazine recently published an article by researchers from UCLA and Princeton that argues that communities can de-legitimize violence and prevent hate by speaking out against it. Violence decreases when masses of people – including prominent “influencers” – vocally and vigorously condemn it. When hate appears, we should all be vocal in condemning it.

The way to cure darkness is to shed light. The way to fight hatred is to spread love. The way to stop violence is to practice nonviolence. And the first step in ending social dysfunction is to say, “Stop it.”

Violence and hate easily become normalized. It begins with a few mean jokes and insulting words. Soon, we are not surprised or offended by rough language and hateful speech. This is especially true when leaders and elites start speaking in insulting, uncivil and hateful ways.

But hateful speech and violent deeds are not normal or defensible. Normal people respect each other. We normally view each other as partners in the project of building up the common good. Normal families, businesses and polities work together, avoiding rancor. Normal people follow the Golden Rule of treating others as you want to be treated.

This time of year, we teach our children that they better be good, for goodness’ sake. And we talk about being naughty or nice. The moral spirit of the season is about generosity, hospitality, love and peace.

Of course, even Christmas has become political. But you don’t have to believe in Christ – or Santa – to understand the moral message of Christmas. The Golden Rule is common to all of the world’s traditions.

It is better to give than to receive. It is better to welcome than to exclude. It is better to build up than to tear down. It is better to live in peace than to be at war. And it is better to love than to hate.

Let’s declare December a hate-free month. Tone down the political vitriol. Reach out to the marginalized. Defuse conflict, violence and fear. And if someone says a hateful word, quote Trump, and tell them to stop it.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article118497773.html

Celebrate decency of ordinary people

Life is more wonderful than we often think

Fresno Bee, December 26, 2016

  • Be grateful for good news
  • Don’t let cynical grumps get you down
  • Take time to recharge your moral batteries

Peace and Love at Christmas

Embrace the Deeper Meaning of Christmas

Fresno Bee, December 12, 2014

The state of Texas recently passed a law making it legal to say “Merry Christmas” in schools. The law grows out of a misguided worry that secular schools should not even mention Christmas. Some even fear that there is a secular war against Christmas.

Peace, Love, Joy, Christmas

The Reverend Franklin Graham, for example, recently wrote: “The war on Christmas is a war on Christ and His followers. It’s the hatred of our culture for the exclusive claims that Christ made.” This dispute is not surprising given the history of religious conflict and ongoing divisions in our diverse culture.

It might help to recall that disputes about Christmas have a deep history. There is no consensus about Christmas, even among Christians. Eastern traditions celebrate Christmas on January 6. The manger scenes we see around Christmas take liberties with the story. Jesus was most likely born in a cave, not in a stable. The animals are also a later addition, not found in the Bible. The Gospels themselves contain different stories.

This is not surprising for people who study religion. Religions and religious stories evolve over time. This helps us gain some perspective on the so-called war on Christmas. Christmas and Christianity itself has never been just one thing.

But the point of Christmas, it seems to me, is to find a way to look beyond our disputes. We celebrate peace, love, hope and joy during the Christmas season. It would be great to focus on those shared valued and leave the divisiveness for the rest of the year.

In our diverse world, not everyone accepts the exclusive theology behind Mr. Graham’s interpretation of Christmas. But we can all benefit from peace and love, joy and hope. Indeed, it is those values that allow us to coexist despite our deep theological differences.

You don’t need to take the nativity story literally to understand values celebrated at Christmas. We can all understand the dramatic moment when Mary and Joseph are turned away from the inn. You don’t have to be a Christian to understand that this story shows us the need for hospitality and that giving birth is momentous joyous and mysterious.

In some sense, Christmas has already become a secular holiday. It is a regular part of our yearly round of holiday closures and vacation scheduling. We all know that “winter break” coincides with Christmas. Charles Haynes, a scholar at the First Amendment Center, made this point in a recent essay discussing the difficulty of managing religious holidays in our multi-religious culture. His solution is to be equitable, hospitable and respectful of our differences.

I corresponded with Mr. Haynes about this. He pointed out that schools should be free to teach about Christmas, while also teaching about other holidays in an academic fashion. Such teaching might include historic debates over the meaning of Christmas among Christians themselves. The colonial Puritans, for example, banned Christmas because they viewed its pagan elements as un-Christian.

While Christmas is inextricably linked to a celebration of the birth of Christ, the holiday is much more than that — it includes Santa and his reindeer, jingle bells and evergreen trees. These later additions have no connection to the Bible story. Christmas has evolved to be a secular — and universally accessible — celebration of joy, peace, love and hope.

The First Amendment guarantees that conservative Christians like Mr. Graham have a right to point out that Christmas originates in stories about the birth of Christ. Atheists also have a right to argue against Christmas and Christianity, if they like. But the Christmas spirit is more inclusive and welcoming than any exclusive religious or anti-religious diatribe. The values of Christmas encourage us to be warmer, gentler, kinder and more friendly. Inclusivity, hospitality, peace and love are important values for all of us.

The deep and universal message of Christmas is the hope that in an inhospitable world, we might find a peace, love and refuge. You don’t have to be a Christian to understand that. Christians layer theology onto the nativity scene, directing hope beyond this world. But the magic of Christmas is found here on earth in the joyous love of mothers and in the peaceful and hopeful faces of children, who have not yet been hardened by the world and its divisions.

The naughty and nice of gift giving

Fresno Bee

November 29, 2013

http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/11/29/3638620/ethics-breaking-down-the-naughty.html

Imagine that your Aunt Clara gives you a pink bunny suit for Christmas, when you really wanted a Red Ryder air rifle. Chances are you’ll smile and say thank you. It’s the thought that counts. You can’t blame Aunt Clara for her bad taste or delusions. Her intentions were good.

But this may let Aunt Clara off too easily. Consequences matter in addition to intentions. We don’t usually think that it’s only the thought that counts. Performance matters in most social endeavors. Good gift giving requires substantial effort beyond merely having good intentions.

Gift giving sends a signal about the status of our relationships. There are a lot of uncertainties here. To begin with, you have to decide who merits a gift. Should you give a gift to your neighbors, co-workers and distant nephews?

Then you have to decide how much to spend. Should you spend as much on your nieces and nephews as you do on the collection for the office assistant or janitor at work? And what about reciprocation? If you gave someone a $10 gift last year and she reciprocated with a $50 gift, what should you give her this year?

Can you give everyone on your list the same gift — perhaps an iTunes gift card? Or do you have to find the perfect gift for each person? Maybe Aunt Clara had a big stack of bunny suits in her closet. Can we blame her for being efficient in her shopping?

Aunt Clara could just send cash. As my grandmother said, cash is always the right color but rarely the right size. But the gift of cash can seem more like a tip than a gift. You can give the mailman a few bucks. But that’s not a proper gift for your wife.

These problems were discussed long ago by the Roman philosopher Seneca. In his treatise on gift giving, Seneca explains that giving must be done for the sake of the recipient. It’s not merely the thought that counts — we also have to try to give an appropriate gift.

Seneca also suggests that genuine gift giving should be done for the sake of giving itself. That sounds like abstract moralizing. But an old Christmas song tells kids to be good for goodness’ sake. The idea is that it is naughty to be good for the sake of something other than goodness.

To give for the sake of giving we must cultivate a spirit of charity, kindness and care. But that generous spirit only creates the right disposition. It still doesn’t tell us what to give or how much. The spirit of pure generosity certainly sounds nice. But without some common sense it can be naughty.

An old proverb states that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Aunt Clara may be on that gilded path. She may think she is being generous for the sake of generosity. But unless she takes your needs and interests into account, giving you a gift for your sake and not merely for the sake of goodness, she’s being lazy and thoughtless.

A further problem is that good giving should not merely give you what you want — it should also give you what you need. If Aunt Clara is really concerned with you for your sake, she shouldn’t give you the air rifle, since after all, “you might put your eye out.” It’s wrong to give someone a gift knowing that the gift might injure him — even if he wants it.

That’s why it is wrong to give wine to a hard drinker — as Seneca notes. When you do something for the sake of someone else, you should carefully imagine the consequences. You’ve got to put yourself in the place of the other.

And that’s the point of gift giving. It encourages deep social interaction grounded in moral imagination. Giving ought to be focused on the unique needs and interests of the individual, done for her sake.

All of this makes shopping harder. But better shopping is not the only solution. The real challenge is to take the time to love those on our lists, without putting another frivolous bunny suit or hazardous air rifle under the Christmas tree.

 

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2013/11/29/3638620/ethics-breaking-down-the-naughty.html#storylink=cpy

Find Christmas Joy in Magic of Cultural Imagination

Find Christmas joy in magic of cultural imagination

Andrew Fiala

Fresno Bee, 2012-12-15

Some atheists sponsored a billboard in Times Square that encourages people to “Keep the Merry, Dump the Myth.” The word “Merry,” accompanies a picture of Santa, while “Myth” is associated with Jesus.  Bumper-stickers on the other side of the culture wars insist that we have to “Keep Christ in Christmas.”

Must we choose sides between Santa and Jesus? Why can’t we have our fruitcake and eat it, too? Christmas is a cultural mashup, combining stories and legends from multiple traditions. Kids who want to put Santa and the Grinch in a stable beside Mary and Joseph are a bit confused. But so what?

The cultural references jostle together during the holidays: Dr. Seuss and Charlie Brown rub elbows with Santa Claus and Jesus. Themes like love and hope, gratitude and generosity connect the dots of this jolly jumble.

Even the pope admits that cultural accretions matter. Pope Benedict’s new book acknowledges that there were no animals in the nativity scene of the Gospels.  But he argues that the ox and the ass at the manger with Mary remain an important element of Christian iconography — an interpretive addition with allegorical significance.

Some people want to refine our stories and images in order to get back to something original and pure. Neo-pagans want to return to ancient Yule and Solstice celebrations. Santa is a Nordic creation, after all. He has a lot in common with the Norse god Thor, whose chariot was pulled across the sky by magical goats.

Christians want to return to the original event in Bethlehem. But there is nothing in our culture that is original and pure — it’s all a mashup.

A few Christians reject Santa completely, seeing him as a sinister pagan idol. He is a laughing deceiver, ominously dressed in red. He gives children toys and candy, distracting them from God.

A few websites fret that if you rearrange the letters of “Santa” you get “Satan.”  Such word play does not enlighten. However, our fascination with word magic does tell us something about human culture.

We like to play with words and rearrange images. We conjure meaning even in meaningless things. This is what allows us to enjoy art and literature. We transform dots, lines and pixels into spirited beings, alive in the mind’s eye.

The joy of Christmas is the magic of the cultural imagination. Think of the effort expended by parents on Christmas Eve.

Some worry that it is immoral to foist the Christmas ruse upon children. But the desire to enchant our children is a work of love. We want them to play and enjoy. They’ll outgrow magic soon enough.

Magical thinking can be dangerous, especially when it lingers beyond childhood. It can distract us from reality — and it can be manipulated. Advertisers use magical thinking to sell us stuff we don’t need.

That’s why Scrooge called Christmas a humbug. He thought it was a fraud and a scam. But even Scrooge was swept away by his memories and dreams. And he overcame his cynicism.

Scrooge’s ghosts do visit us this time of year. Memories of Christmas past creep into consciousness with the smell of baking cookies. We hum along with once forgotten carols. The icons and images evoke a mood, even though we grown-ups know better.

The trick is to harness the images and moods for moral purposes. The goal is to conjure up generosity and grace instead of greed and ingratitude.

This is explained by Dane Scott, director of the Ethics Center at the University of Montana, in a recent essay about Christmas. Scott argues that Christmas provides an opportunity for children to practice generosity and gratitude. Scott also explains the magic of what he calls, “emotional fire,” the magic of ethical or spiritual transformation.

Good stories assist this process. Stories and images move us. Purists may think that only some stories count. But maybe what counts is the power of the stories to kindle a fire and soften our hearts.

Winter darkness breeds Scrooges and Grinches. If you discover hope in this dark season, it doesn’t matter much where it comes from. If you’ve found it, be grateful. Then mash it up and pass it on.

Giving, Receiving Create Complex Social Dance

Giving, Receiving Create Complex Social Dance

Fresno Bee, December 17, 2011

Christmas is the Superbowl of giving and receiving.  All of our social and interpersonal skills are needed to give and receive well.  We can learn a lot about social life, by carefully observing the details of the annual Christmas potlatch.  And we can learn about ourselves by considering how we deal with giving and receiving.

Gift giving is a form of communication.  Gifts send social messages.  A perfect gift is a sign of care and thoughtfulness.  A great gift shows that the other person really understands you.  Although we say that it’s the thought that counts, inappropriate gifts are expressions of thoughtlessness. What message is being delivered when you give an alcoholic uncle a bottle of booze or a conservative niece a subscription to your favorite liberal news magazine?

Good givers are perceptive interpreters of social reality.  It takes considerable finesse to figure out who should get what, in our complex social world.  Do you, for example, give a gift to the mother of the man you just divorced, when she comes to pick up her grandchildren?  It takes a lot of tact to negotiate these sorts of situations.

The Christmas gift ritual is subtle game of secrets and excitement.  We keep these secrets wrapped in bows—to be given at the right time and in the right way.  Wonderful gifts can be ruined by an over-enthusiastic or half-hearted presentation.  Children can be forgiven for spilling the beans or for ripping into a gift too soon.  But adults are expected to display a subtle balance of eager enthusiasm and cool nonchalance.

There are a lot of details to attend to.  Sometimes a gift-receipt is appropriate.  But it is usually considered tacky to leave the price tag on. Homemade gifts can be charming—but some people will think you are a cheapskate.  What about an expensive gift: is it too flashy or over-the-top? And is “re-gifting” allowed?  Probably, as long as you don’t tell the original giver or the new recipient.

Gift-giving relationships are fraught with social significance.  Consider the annual Christmas card list.  When do you drop or add someone from your list?  And those newsy holiday letters are subject to interpretation: are you bragging too much about your fabulous life or complaining too much about your deteriorating health?  Should you write a personal note to a casual acquaintance?  Or can you just send the family picture, without a note?  These choices convey social messages.

There is also an art to being a gracious receiver.  We need to know how to say thanks.  Expressions of gratitude allow the act of giving to be successfully completed.  And you need to fake gratitude when necessary.  Even phony gratefulness is important, as a sign that the gift has been received.  In the modern world, it is difficult to figure out what counts as an appropriate thanks.  Is a text message or phone call sufficient?  Or should you write a good old-fashioned thank-you note?

If this sounds difficult, that’s because social life is difficult.  Giving and receiving are complex social practices.  Generous givers and gracious receivers are social geniuses.  They negotiate social situations with grace and style, nimbly imagining the other person’s attitudes, expectations, and desires.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle recognized that generosity was in the middle between stinginess and wastefulness.  It is wrong to give to little—but it is also wrong to give too much.  The key for Aristotle is figuring out how to give the right amount, to the right person, at the right time, in the right way.  This takes careful reflection and lots of practice.  The same can be said for receiving: we need to carefully practice graciousness and gratitude.  The key is to be mindful, thoughtful, and aware of the complexities of the social game.

No one is born knowing how to give well or to receive graciously.  All of this is learned behavior.  Our children work on it throughout the year—at birthday parties and elsewhere.  Adults participate in acts of giving and receiving every day.  We give each other our time, our attention, and the small favors that lubricate social life.  Christmas crystallizes this for us, as a ritual reminder that human life is a complex dance of giving and receiving.

You’re a Foul One, Shopping Season

You’re a Foul One, Shopping Season

Fresno Bee, December 3, 2011

I watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” the other day with my children on television.  Every fan of the cartoon knows that the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes when he realizes, “Christmas doesn’t come in a store.”

But this soft Seussian message was drowned out by the ads that interrupted the show.  Nearly every commercial was promoting Christmas shopping!  Even my kids noted the irony.  The network was using Seuss to sell us the idea that Christmas really does come in a store.  It is easy to feel Grinchy at times like these.

Consider the odd degeneration of the Thanksgiving weekend.  Thanksgiving day is overshadowed by the next several days of shopping.  These shopping days now have names that can seem like something from Seuss: Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday.  This silliness got serious this year, when Black Friday frenzy turned bloody, as sleep-deprived shoppers competed for door-buster ads with elbows, fists, and pepper-spray.

Even the President got into the spirit of the shopping season. Obama went shopping with his daughters on “Small Business Saturday,” buying books at a local bookstore.  He said, “This is Small Business Saturday.  So we’re out here supporting small business.”  Holiday family time is now oddly connected to a patriotic duty to go shopping.

Shopping is an American hobby.  We shop when we are bored or lonely.  And some shoppers treat it as a competitive sport, vying for bargains.  Or they try to be the first to buy something, even if that means standing in line in the middle of the night.  This is not just confined to Black Fridaybedlam.  Shoppers camp out for new video games and the latest iphone.

Our culture appears to be built upon Grinch-like values such as envy, greed, and—to use a good old-fashioned word—covetousness.  It used to be a sin to covet things in this way.  But now it is built right in to the holiday season.  Children are encouraged to give Santa a list of what they desire. Adults write up holiday wish lists.  And many of us use the holidays as an excuse to buy ourselves things—even going through the ruse of wrapping these “gifts” and putting them under the tree.

Meanwhile, everyone is trying to get a deal.  From the housing bubble to “Antiques Road Show,” it seems that we remain obsessed with finding bargains and turning a profit.  We are fascinated by stories of “extreme couponing.”  And the Seussian term “shopaholic” has entered our vocabularies.

“Shopaholism” can be a serious problem.  A syndrome called “Compulsive Buying Disorder” afflicts about one out of twenty of us.  A more technical term for this condition also rings Seussian: “Oniomania,” which literally means “maniacal buying.”  This occurs when shopping becomes a primary way to deal with stress, boredom, and anxiety.  As with gambling addiction, a downward spiral can result for the shopping maniac: as debt increases, anxiety increases, and the desire to shop grows.

We might think that obsessive shopping and compulsive buying are peculiar to modern capitalist societies.  But Biblical writers routinely condemned covetousness.  Even a Roman philosopher such as Seneca understood the problem.  Seneca thought that the inordinate desire to buy things can leave us unhappy and indebted, especially when hucksters try to make a buck by manipulating our desires.  He cautioned that we must “see how much we must pay for that which we crave.”

For Stoics such as Seneca, the cost of owning things is usually more than they are worth.  Our craving for new things and the desire to make a good deal can leave us deceived, miserable, and indebted.  Seneca concluded, “We should belong to ourselves, if only these things did not belong to us.”

You don’t have to be a Stoic sage or a Christian saint to understand that many of the things we buy end up owning us.  Just ask anyone who got swept up in the housing bubble and left underwater.  And most kids understand the message of “The Grinch.”  The Who’s down in Whoville didn’t mind that the Grinch had just stolen all of their Christmas loot.  They knew that Christmas was about the community they shared.  And they recognized that Christmas doesn’t come in a store.