And So This is Christmas

I wonder what Jesus would think of Christmas in 2016 in America. We have gone from reverent worship by a handful of shepherds to a merchandising miracle. My family is no different than most America’s families (although I realize there are many who have little – at least on a material basis – to enjoy at Christmas). My wife and I say each year we are not going to do much for Christmas, but when we finally finish all the wrapping, there is not nearly enough room under the tree for all the presents. I have a large family (five kids with four spouses and 14 grandchildren), so it doesn’t take much for the presents to pile up. But I have learned over the years that the more we get, the less we appreciate each gift. This year especially I noticed that many of our grandkids (those four to six years old) had more fun unwrapping the presents than enjoying what was inside. I almost agree with the Grinch in How the Grinch Stole Christmas* that, with so many gifts soon ending up in the garbage, what we keep doing is stupid, stupid, stupid:

Seeing the haul everyone took home from our extended family celebration two days before Christmas, and then visiting our adult kids homes’ on Christmas day, reminded me of how fortunate we are to live in America with its wealth compared to most of the rest of the world – although prosperity brings its own set of problems. Several years back David J. Smith wrote a children’s book in which he took the world’s population and reduced it to 100 people, but kept all the demographic ratios in place. Various websites have taken that idea and tried to keep the statistics current. If the entire world’s population were reduced to only one hundred people, the demographics would look like this:

  • 61 of the villagers would be Asian (20 Chinese, 17 Indian and 24 other Asians), 13 would be African, 12 would be European, 9 would be Latin Americans, and five would be American and Canadian. None would be Australian.
  • 50 would be male and 50 would be female. 27 would be under 15 years of age and 7 would be over 64 years old.
  • 75 would be non-white.
  • 33 would be Christian, 20 would be Muslim, 13 would be Hindu, 6 would be Buddhists, 2 would be atheists, 12 would claim not religious affiliation, and 14 would be members of other religions.
  • 80 would live in substandard housing.
  • At least 18 would be unable to read or write, but 33 would have cell phones.
  • 50 would be malnourished and one would be dying of starvation.
  • 33 would be without access to a safe water supply.
  • 39 would lack access to improved sanitation
  • 24 would not have any electricity, and of the 76 who had electricity, most would use it only for a light at night.
  • Only 16 would have access to the Internet.
  • One would have a college education.
  • Two would be near birth; one would be near death.
  • Five would control 32 percent of the entire world’s wealth; all five of those would be US citizens. Only 18 would have cars.
  • One would have aids, 26 would smoke, and 14 would be obese.
  • 48 would live on less than $2 a day.
  • 20 would live on less than $1 a day.

But even in America, the inequality of wealth can be alarming. For example, in 2010, the top 400 richest people in America owned more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans put together. To learn more about wealth in America, I recommend Inequality for All** which discusses in detail the inequality of wealth in America, and Happy*** which discusses, it part, how wealth affects (or does not affect) our levels of happiness.

Christmas was especially hard for me this year, as I spent long hours, including many weekends during the last three months of the year, working on a large transaction for my employer. It has reminded me once again that, even on my best days at work, my greatest accomplishment is to help the corporation make more money. That is not necessarily bad. I realize it’s the pursuit of money that makes the economy (and therefore the world) go ‘round, or as Gordon Gecko would say in Wall Street****, “Greed is good.

But how many Christmas presents are enough? Is greed really good when it destroys relationships and even lives? As we learned from the documentary, Happy, we need enough money to cover our basic needs, but after that, adding to our collection of things really doesn’t increase our happiness – although most of us think otherwise. Despite what Gordon Gecko says, it’s not all about bucks.

Please don’t misunderstand me; I am grateful for a secure job that provides me more than enough income to satisfy my family’s needs. But with a good income, comes a responsibility. What can we, who have so much, do to instigate change in the inequality of wealth? I don’t believe the redistribution of wealth through taxation is the ultimate answer. Here are some of my New Year’s resolutions for the coming year:

  • I will increase my charitable giving, and make it more effective. In reviewing my charitable donations this past year, I discovered that a large share of my contributions (about half) went to cultural arts organizations. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, as I believe good music, art and theater greatly adds to our quality of life. But unfortunately, many people can’t afford to enjoy them (e.g. Hamilton tickets costing over $600+ per ticket). This year, I intend to give more to organizations that help families meet their basic needs.
  • I will focus my giving (both time and money) on organizations designed to help people help themselves. As the old saying goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him a meal; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a life time.”
  • I will give away old clothes, cars and furniture rather than sell them on Craig’s List.
  • I will take care of my own first, by teaching my children (and grandchildren) the value of work and the importance of a good education that teaches practical skills.
  • I will distribute wealth among my immediate and extended family by subsidizing housing, and making educational grants and low interest car and other loans, to those that need the help.
  • Most importantly, I will not judge others based on their economic status. It is not my place to determine whether someone “deserves” to go hungry.

There are many other things we can do as well. And step one is to realize what we have, and what many others do not.

In closing, I hope we all can realize, like the Grinch, that Christmas doesn’t come from a store.

As we start this new year, let’s remember that people are more important than things, and that no one should have to go to bed hungry. And also like the Grinch, if we can do that, maybe our hearts will grow three sizes as well.

                                                           

*How the Grinch Stole Christmas

  • Production: Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment
  • Directed: Ron Howard
  • Screenplay: Jeffrey Price (based on the book by Dr. Seuss)
  • Starring: Jim Carrey and Taylor Momsen
  • Release Date: November 17, 2000

**Inequality for All

  • Production: 72 Productions
  • Directed: Jacob Kornbluth
  • Screenplay: Documentary
  • Starring: Robert Reich
  • Release Date: September 27, 2013

***Happy

  • Production: Emotional Content, Iris Films and Wadi Rum Films, Inc.
  • Directed: Roko Bellic
  • Screenplay: Roko Bellic
  • Starring: Anne Blechsgaard, Gregory Burns and Roy Blanchard
  • Release Date: July 3, 2013

****Wall Street

  • Production: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, American Entertainment Partners, L.P.
  • Directed: Oliver Stone
  • Screenplay: Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone
  • Starring: Charlie Sheen, Michael Douglas, and Tamara Tunie
  • Release Date: December 11, 1987

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