Christmas Thoughts

Christmas Thoughts

Someone once said that there are places in the heart that you never even know exist until you love a child. I believe that. When I became a parent, I got in touch with a part of me that had never surfaced before. I found myself loving my kids with a kind of fierceness that almost scared me. I am a mild mannered guy, a peace loving man, yet I knew, just as sure as I am writing these words, that I would have killed anyone who hurt my children. Most moms and dads understand what I’m saying because they would do the same for their kids.

I think this strong emotional bond between parent and child is what gives the Christmas story its eternal relevance and power. People, who know or care little about dogma or theology or even for attending church, are swept up in the story of a poor carpenter and his wife and the birth of their baby boy. The story transcends what we know as organized religion and speaks directly to the heart. It’s a tale as old as human kind and yet personal to you and me. We identify with Mary and Joseph’s joy and share their fears and uncertainly about the safety of their child because Jesus is every child, yours and mine and everyone’s.

One would think that with the presence of this strong bond between parent and child that our kids would all be protected and loved and cared for. But looking at our track record as a nation, I’m not sure we are doing very well at all. Otherwise, how do we explain that there are over half a million kids in foster care in this country alone? How do we rationalize the vast number of latch key kids who come home from school to an empty house or the throw away kids that parent kick out of their homes or the crack babies? Why is it that over a million children are being raised by their grandparents?

We have to do better by our kids and “better’ does not mean simply loading on the toys under the Christmas tree. All the game boys and Dora dolls can’t begin to make up for not being there for our kids. Somewhere along the way, we have, as the Legend of Bagger Vance would have it, “lost our stroke.” We have tried to substitute “stuff” for love and it doesn’t work, neither for us nor for the children entrusted to us.

A number of years ago, in the midst of a school board election, I remember an old friend of mine, a staunch conservative who was hostile towards any government handouts, surprising me by voting yes on a school bond issue. This was especially puzzling since both his kids and his grandkids were past school age. When I asked him about it, he said simply, “Hank, the way I look at it is that all these kids are our kids.”

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My Christmas wish for you and for me is that all of us start seeing all kids as our kids. Maybe, in doing so we will rediscover that place in our hearts that only the love of children can uncover.

What Are Old People For?

What Are Old Folks For?

I picked up the book at the bookstore the other day and was astonished at the title “What Are Old People For?” What kind of title is that, I thought to myself. How come they don’t write a book about “What Young People are For?” or What Are Irish Americans For?” Why should old folks be singled out? Aren’t we all in this journey of life together? Are seniors the only group of people who have to justify their existence?

As it turned out, the book I held in my hand wasn’t picking on older folks at all. Quite the opposite. Written by a doctor named William Thomas, the book is all about changing our obsession with youth and beginning to see the value in the wisdom and perspective older people are capable of contributing to society.

In Thomas’s view, the older generation does not get a lot of respect in our culture. Older equals doddering, hard of hearing, out of touch and sexless. We are tolerated because of the money we may leave our kids some day, or because we’re a great source of all those dementia jokes or because it’s comforting for the middle-aged generation to have a group of folks older than they are. “To be old in contemporary society,” says the author, “is to inhabit a ghetto without borders.”

That may be true but it is also true that sometimes the ghetto we construct is of our own making. My sister-in-law who had flaming red hair as a youngster used to be labeled as “hot headed” by the adults in her life. “Oh, you know those red heads. They have an out of control temper.” After a while, she told me that she began to act out their expectations of her. “As long as I had the name, I figured I might as well play the game.”

Older people can fall into that trap, too. We can find ourselves accepting the stereotypes society has manufactured for us. Blondes are beautiful but dumb. Black men are great athletes. Old people are out of it.

Dag Hammarskjold, the legendary humanist and former Secretary General of the United Nations, was fond of saying “The less I let others determine my worth for me, the more I own myself. The less I obsess about my self, the more I am myself.”

We do not do ourselves or society as a whole any favor by allowing ourselves to be treated with a benign condescension by others. It’s shortsighted for a younger generation not to pay attention to the life experience of its older people. It’s worse when we allow ourselves to be characterized as irrelevant and don’t have the moxie to speak up. We diminish both ourselves and our world by our silence.

We are the “elders,” a term worthy of respect. There is a purpose for each of the stages of our lives. Want to know what older people are for?” We’re the bearers of tradition, the tellers of stories, the appreciators of life, the grandparents and conveyers of unconditional love to children, the believers in a power beyond our selves. We speak for kindness and goodness and compassion and yearn for a better world for those who come after us. Never let it be said that we allow a younger generation to define us by our gray hairs or wrinkles. We wear our wrinkles and our age spots proudly. They are our medals of honor, our purple hearts, won on the battlefields of life.