By John W. Whitehead
“The Christmas hope for peace and good will toward all men can no longer be dismissed as a kind of pious dream of some utopian. If we don’t have good will toward men in this world, we will destroy ourselves by the misuse of our own instruments and our own power. Wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete. We must either learn to live together as brothers or we are going to perish together as fools.”—Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., Christmas Eve sermon, 1967
As a child, my Christmas wish list came right out of the Sears and Roebuck catalogue—toys, board games, bikes, action figures, etc. My parents, like so many in their day, belonged to the working-class poor, so while I never lacked for the necessities of life, many of the items on my wish list never came to be. Even so, I was no worse off for it.
I wish the same could be said of those still unfulfilled items on my adult Christmas wish list. Each year, I wish for the same things—an end to war, poverty, hunger, violence and disease—and each year, I find the world relatively unchanged. Millions continue to die every year, casualties of a world that places greater value on war machines and profit margins than human life.
I’ve seen enough of the world in my 65 years to know that wishing is not enough. We need to be doing. It’s not possible to solve all of the world’s problems right away. For most people, putting an end to world hunger, poverty and disease may seem too insurmountable a task to even tackle. But there are practical steps each of us can take to hopefully get things moving in the right direction. Here’s what I would suggest for a start:
Tone down the partisan rhetoric, the “us” vs. “them” mentality. Politicians frequently perpetuate a “good” versus “evil,” “us” versus “them” rhetoric which pits citizen against citizen and allows the politicians to advance their personal, political agendas. Instead of wasting time and resources on political infighting, which gets us nowhere, it’s time Americans learned to work together to solve the problems before us. The best place to start is in your own communities, neighbor to neighbor. After all, at the end of the day, it makes no difference what politician you voted for—Republican, Democrat or otherwise—politics will never be the answer. Politicians have mastered the art of creating dissension, but they’re all the same. Grassroots activism is the only kind of change you can count on.
Turn off the TV and tune into what’s happening in your family, in your community and your world. Read your local newspaper. Attend a school board or city council meeting. Get involved with a nonprofit that works in your community. Whatever you do, reduce your intake of mindless television and entertainment news. The only reality programming worth taking notice of is the one playing in your home and community.
Show compassion to those in need, be kind to those around you, forgive those who have wronged you, and teach your children to do the same. Increasingly, people seem to be forgetting their p’s and q’s—basic manners that were drilled into older generations. I’m talking about simple things like holding a door open for someone, helping someone stranded on the side of the road, and saying “please” and “thank you” to those who do you a service—whether it be to the teenager bagging your groceries or the family member who just passed the potatoes. As author Robert Heinlein observed, “A dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot...”
Talk less, listen more. Take less, and give more. If people spent less time dwelling on and attending to their own needs and more time trying to help and understand those around them, many of the problems we currently face could be eliminated.
Stop acting entitled and start being empowered. We have moved into the Age of Entitlement, where more and more people feel entitled to certain benefits without having to work for them. There’s nothing wrong with helping those less fortunate, but as my parents taught me, there’s a lot to be said for an honest day’s work.
Remember that all people are endowed with inalienable rights. I’ve heard a lot of chatter in recent years in favor of torturing detainees and denying basic rights to non-citizens, but doing so not only goes against everything that the U.S. is supposed to stand for, but it also goes against every principle common to all world religions—forgiveness, charity, nonjudgmentalism, nonviolence, etc. America cannot continue to lambast terrorist groups for their contempt for human life and dignity when our own nation violates these same principles time and again.
Stop being a hater. Increasingly, we as a society have come to reflect the hostility at work in the world at large. This is so even in such a virtual microcrosm as Facebook, where “unfriending” those with whom you might disagree has become commonplace. How can we ever hope to curb the hatred and animosity that have spurred global terrorism over the past few decades if we can’t even forgive the human failings of those in our immediate circles?
Learn tolerance in the true sense of the word. There’s no need to legislate tolerance through hate crime legislation and other politically correct mechanisms of compliance. True tolerance stems from a basic respect for one’s fellow man or woman. And it should be taught to children from the time they can understand right from wrong.
Treat women like people, not things. If pop culture and the media are any reflection of how women and girls are viewed today—primarily as sex objects—then one can only wonder what exactly the women’s rights movement has been doing in recent years. The use of sex and its impact on young girls is particularly troubling. As professor Henry A. Giroux observed: “Market strategists are increasingly using sexually charged images to sell commodities, often representing the fantasies of an adult version of sexuality. For instance, Abercrombie & Fitch, a clothing franchise for young people, has earned a reputation for its risqué catalogues filled with promotional ads of scantily clad kids and its over-the-top sexual advice columns for teens and preteens; one catalogue featured an ad for thongs for ten-year-olds with the words ‘eye candy’ and ‘wink wink’ written on them. Another clothing store sold underwear geared toward teens with ‘Who needs Credit Cards ...?’ written across the crotch. Children as young as six years old are being sold lacy underwear, push-up bras and ‘date night accessories’ for their various doll collections. In 2006, the Tesco department store chain sold a pole dancing kit designed for young girls to unleash the sex kitten inside.”
Value your family. The traditional family, such that it is, is already in great disrepair, torn apart by divorce, infidelity, overscheduling, overwork, materialism, and an absence of spirituality. Despite the billions we spend on childcare, toys, clothes, private lessons, etc., a concern for our children no longer seems to be a prime factor in how we live our lives. And now we are beginning to see the blowback from collapsing familial relationships. Indeed, more and more, I hear about young people refusing to talk to their parents, grandparents being denied access to their grandchildren, and older individuals left to molder away in nursing homes. Yet without the family, the true building block of our nation, there can be no freedom.
Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and comfort the lonely and broken-hearted. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Take part in local food drives. Take a meal to a needy family. “Adopt” an elderly person at a nursing home. Support the creation of local homeless shelters in your community. Urge your churches, synagogues and mosques to act as rotating thermal shelters for the homeless during the cold winter months.
Give peace a chance. So far, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan have cost American taxpayers nearly $4 trillion, and that doesn’t even begin to approach the human cost in lives lost—military and civilian—and families rent asunder. The military industrial complex has a lot to gain financially so long as America continues to wage its wars at home and abroad, but you can be sure that the American people will lose everything unless we find some way to give peace a chance. We can start by bringing all of our men and women in uniform home.
Start your own teaspoon brigade. You don’t have to solve all the world’s problems single-handedly, nor do you have to solve them overnight. Little by little, you’ll get there, but you have to start somewhere. It is up to each of us to do our part to make this a better world for all. As the legendary singer, songwriter and activist Pete Seeger once remarked to me:
I tell everybody a little parable about the “teaspoon brigades.” Imagine a big seesaw. One end of the seesaw is on the ground because it has a big basket half full of rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air because it’s got a basket one-quarter full of sand. Some of us have teaspoons, and we are trying to fill it up. Most people are scoffing at us. They say, “People like you have been trying for thousands of years, but it is leaking out of that basket as fast as you are putting it in.” Our answer is that we are getting more people with teaspoons every day. And we believe that one of these days or years—who knows—that basket of sand is going to be so full that you are going to see that whole seesaw going zoop! in the other direction. Then people are going to say, “How did it happen so suddenly?” And we answer, “Us and our little teaspoons over thousands of years.”