December 17, 2004 -- Christmas is a season of beautiful lights, parties, gifts, food, family, friends, songs, and sentiments. Among the latter, "goodwill toward men" is a favorite, and we are urged to keep such sentiments not only during the holiday season but all year round. But what lessons from these sentiments should we really take from December to July?
Often, goodwill can mean a general sympathy for others. As self-conscious individuals, we can imagine what it's like to be in another's situation. When we see someone else stub his toe, we ourselves wince and cry, "Ouch!" When we see someone in misery, we want to ease her pain. During the holiday season, many think that goodwill means giving food, gifts, donations, or making visits to those who are in need.
In some cases—the death of a loved one, sickness, mental illness, the rigors of old age—the cause of suffering might be beyond the individual's control. In this case, our sympathy for them as fellow human beings is quite appropriate, as is reminding them of the good things still left in life with a visit or a gift.
In other cases—drug addiction, broken families, poverty—the causes might in part or whole be within one's power to change. In such cases, true goodwill would mean eliminating the causes, not merely treating the effects. Ultimately, it is those who suffer who must show goodwill to themselves. They must appreciate that they have the power to resist that which is harmful to them and to change bad habits. Other people of goodwill can help such individuals by urging them to hold to the best and highest within themselves, by showing them what beauty and joy life holds, especially during this season.
One can ask them to imagine future Christmases when they will no longer be the denizens of soup kitchens and homeless shelters or objects of charity, but self-sufficient, proud, and prosperous individuals who will celebrate their regained lives in this most wonderful time of year.
Then they will join the rest of us in practicing a more personal form of goodwill through an active appreciation of those individuals in our lives whom we enjoy, respect, admire, and love, not just in December but all year round. These are our colleagues at work; the paperboys, garage parking attendants, and others who serve us during the year; neighbors we see on the run but who we'd really like to get to know better; friends who join us at movies, ballgames, or shopping malls; relatives with whom we've shared important parts of our lives; and those we truly and deeply love—parents, brothers, sisters, husbands, and wives.
We will express our goodwill to these individuals in different degrees according to their personal value to us: parties for many, small gifts as tokens of appreciation for some, and extravagant or extremely thoughtful presents for others.
Benevolent men and women recognize the value to themselves of living in society. They recognize the need to foster a harmony of interests that arises when each individual respects the humanity and independence of others. We each will show appreciation for those we value in our own ways, and as others do the same, we will understand why this is indeed the season of goodwill toward men.