From my perspective, December 25 is the first of the Twelve Days of Christmas, so I’m writing this post on the second day – Boxing Day in England, the feast of St. Stephen on liturgical calendars. But if you follow the American retail calendar – or the ABC Family TV network one – it turns out there are “25 Days of Christmas” that ended December 25. As I write this post on a gray, rainy morning, the “after Christmas sales” are beginning in earnest. Given the rain, many of my neighbors may possibly leave their decorations up “an extra day.” But in sunnier years I’ve often seen discarded Christmas trees, a few strands of tinsel still clinging to their branches, lying at the curb by now. Sometimes they’re even there by mid-afternoon on Christmas Day, when I’m on my way to the group of friends who gather for Christmas dinner every year.
That annual gathering is a great example of joyful community. It started out almost by accident, with invitations from a large, generous family for smaller families to join them … on Thanksgiving Day, several years ago. It grew into “Christmas Around the World,” featuring a different national cuisine each year. An Easter dinner joined the lineup a few years later; the Thanksgiving one ended as people’s schedules and situations changed. New members join, long-time members depart for a while, but the community endures. Shared food, shared experience, shared conversation – it really is a beautiful picture of one way a joyful community can form and endure.
When you stop and look closely, when you slow down and notice, there are joyful communities all over the place. Some are ongoing, some temporary. Some have a grandly stated purpose, some don’t. Some are deliberately formed, some accidental.
Different communities form for different seasons, different times, different purposes.
Even for such a seemingly simple thing as Christmas, there are different times and purposes. When I woke up Christmas morning, opened a few presents, got ready for my favorite (and least-attended) church service of the year, I had a brief opportunity to read Facebook and Google+ feeds to see how various friends were celebrating. “Can’t wait to stuff my face in a few hours!” said one. “Two movies this afternoon, then Chinese food,” said another. “Remembering the Most Precious Gift of All,” said a third. “Whirlwind of wrapping paper and boxes,” said many with small children or grandchildren at home.
Both the commercial and the liturgical calendars see the first part of December as a time of expectant waiting and preparation – but that’s where the similarities end. What you’re waiting for, what you do while you wait, and what happens when the waiting is over – the commercial and liturgical perspectives and purposes are almost totally opposite. The Elf on the Shelf and the empty manger send very different messages.
Same day, same name, utterly different purposes and perspectives. It’s so easy, though, to assume that the same day and same name automatically mean same purpose, and to respond with surprise, even anger, when that turns out not to be true. It’s also easy to assume that a shared general description of purpose translates into a shared core purpose … but that’s often not true, either, and that false assumption also leads to surprise and anger.
And it’s easy – appallingly easy – to assume that everyone else’s experiences are just like yours, to judge and dismiss without understanding because, ironically, you’re sure that you do understand, to yell and label because, well, you just know. But you don’t. A friend brought this New Republic piece to my attention – an unschooling friend, understandably enraged by the author’s dismissive treatment of informal education, his lionizing of “the great profession of pedagogy.” The predictable yelling and labeling from all sides of the “education debate” has started … and, sadly, very few of the yellers and labelers will take time to listen to each other’s stories before – or after – the screaming starts.
But what if they – we – did stop and listen? What if we asked before we assumed? Mr. Wieseltier, proud “progeny of teachers,” might be horrified by a first-hand view of factory-model schools. They’re hardly focused on “the schooling of inwardness” or the “intellectual obligation upon the individual, who cannot acquit himself of his democratic duty without an ability to reason, a familiarity with argument, a historical memory” that he sees as the purpose of education … and they don’t look very much like the tidy, carpeted, freshly-painted classroom whose stock-photo image graces his article. And if more schools were like his conception, the very people he criticizes – for rejecting schools as they actually are, for seeking the kind of purposeful learning he assumes only schools-as-he-imagines-them can deliver – might have a very different perspective on formal education.
Why don’t we listen to each other? Why is it easier to yell and label, to scream and reject, than to admit we might not understand each other? Why is it easier to label than to listen?
If you’re familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures – or if you’ve ever heard The Byrds’ most famous song – you’ll recognize allusions in the title of today’s post. But if you lived through that bitterly-divided time, your old visceral response may kick in. Reading the comments below the video version I chose, I was sad, but unsurprised, to see that for many commenters, the war still isn’t over, that the same tired old yells and labels are still fun – or still automatic – nearly five decades later.
How can we build a joyful community – or any community at all – when fear and anger, the root of yelling and labeling, seem to rule the day? It was simple, in the end, for the Grinch, in my favorite retail-entertainment Christmas story. He just had to notice something unexpected.
How can we find – or provide – more seasons and times for the purpose of noticing?