If you’ve somehow been in a Rip Van Winkle sleep and have awakened without knowing what season it is, you might catch on by seeing how niceness is suddenly directing traffic or how smiles surround us wherever we go.
While making my way through a traffic jam the other day, I could not help being impressed by the various driver courtesies. Later, I encountered great gobs of gladness while poking around in a shopping mall. Then, on returning home and scouting out news on the Internet, I bumped into three tales of a giving spree.
The stories were about red kettles, the Salvation Army donation containers you see in front of stores with a volunteer ringing a bell or maybe, like a sight I witnessed the other day, a bunch of happy little girls singing carols.
In Louisville, Ky., it’s reported, someone dropped a South African Krugerrand worth $1,400 in one red kettle. In Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., the anonymous kettle gift came in the form of cashier checks. The amount was $5,500. It was cashier checks again in Joplin, Mo. There were five, wrapped in $1 bills and signed by Santa Claus. They added up to $100,000.
A literary character named Fred, nephew of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” tells his uncle what underlies such acts, saying that Christmas is “a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”
Scrooge, we all know, is a bah, humbug kind of guy and isn’t buying any, but then come the visiting ghosts, including that of Jacob Marley, his regretful, dejected, deceased former partner. Trying to buck him up, one online discussion of the story reminds us, Scrooge says to the old fellow that he was after all good at business. The death-refashioned Marley responds with Dickensian eloquence.
“Mankind was my business,” he cries. “The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
We all feel that way, don’t we, that goodness to others is our business? You don’t think so? Adam Smith, who wrote famously, powerfully and lastingly in the 18th century about the power of self-interest to benefit the common welfare in economic affairs, also wrote persuasively and importantly about sympathy for our fellow human beings as a virtually universal sentiment crucial to and forming the core of our morality. We want others to be happy, he says.
James Q. Wilson, a superb social scientist of our own era, explores aspects of the idea in “The Moral Sense,” arguing that sympathy is a key element in our moral apprehensions, serving as a powerful motivator in some instances, though weak or even absent in others.
For most of us, I am convinced, it definitely is there. It is evident as one example in charitable giving that is higher per capita in America than anyplace else in the world, that has been picking up this year after a recessionary decline and that is especially pronounced during this special holy day season.
Even many outside the Christian faith seem to find themselves moved by the story of amazing grace and a humble birth that would bring vast new, loving possibilities into our lives. And with visions of doing unto others dancing in their heads, great numbers slow down in traffic so someone in front of them can change lanes, or drop a few dollars or even many thousands in a red kettle somewhere, scuttling through anonymity any accusation of merely seeking praise.
Bah, humbug? No. Joy to the world.
Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.