What Matters at Year's End
It is the season of the shortest day of the year, of Hanukah, of Christmas, of celebrations and gift giving. Christmas cards have begun to arrive and some of them contain the annual family newsletter. They chronicle the family's last year, their trips to exotic places, the sports their children play, the professional conventions they attended, and perhaps the prizes and honors they garnered.
I enjoy getting the news of friends and relatives I have known for many years. But amidst all the information I was pleased to receive, something seemed to be missing. I kept thinking that the chronicle I read recounted a year in various humans' lives. But lives consist of more than travel, soccer games lost or won, or even professional recognition.
Human lives consist of growth and then of decay. Humans learn. They draw lessons from their experiences. They develop new skills when their experience pushes them to learn to solve problems they had perhaps not recognized before or had been unable to overcome. They find that the assumptions they had relied on for a long time were false; they needed to reorient themselves to different assumptions. They may, for instance, have thought that the election for two presidential terms of an African-American signified a significant reduction of racism and the racial oppression experienced by many fellow citizens. But then new experiences may lead them to question this optimistic view in the light of the cancerous growth of racist and white supremacist organizations, action, and speech.
During the past year some of the authors of these family histories passed important milestones. They celebrated their 50th or 60th birthday. Some family letters acknowledged these milestones but were content to assert that they did not bring up disturbing thoughts. But if you are 60 years old, should you not occasionally entertain disturbing thoughts? Should you not consider your health, your diet, and whether you get enough exercise? Should you think about when to retire and what that would mean? For many professionals their occupation is the central component of their identity, of who they are. How will retirement affect their sense of who they are? It is surely worth thinking about that before the event. It is utterly evasive to say: "I'll deal with that when I have to." Humans, unlike, say, dogs, are able to look ahead and plan. Should we not do that?
Many newsletters speak of sons and daughters who are close to going to college. They are in their late teens when young people experience amazing growth and change. But none of the newsletters I read recount the blossoming of their children They remained with the impersonal surface fact that this young woman or man is thinking of college. No mention of moral development, the discovery of politics, the experimentation with serious relationships, the many questions about how this world works in which they find themselves.
This may seem to be unkind complaining about people who want to share some of the very public milestones in the last year without revealing the more private, and, to be sure, more important experiences and developments of their family members. They do not know who all will read their holiday letter and do not want strangers to know about very personal and very important events in their lives. Their privacy is of great importance to many Americans. It matters to them that strangers not know about the more exciting or more troubling events in their lives.
But there is a different way of reading these bland and uncommunicative holiday missives. Americans have accustomed themselves to avoiding controversy. When we get together for a meal, or wait our turn in the barbershop or beauty parlor, or wait for the doctor in her waiting room we may talk about the weather, we may talk about sports, but politics, religion, moral controversies are off-limits. In other words it is forbidden to talk about serious matters that anybody really cares about. The essential traits of our lives, what gives us strength and hope to persevere as well as what makes us despair is prohibited. It is unspeakable. It may not be brought up for conversation.
"Different people choose to talk about different things in public. Who are you to judge people who are more reticent than you are? It is not up to you to choose to embarrass others by mentioning matters they are reluctant to discuss. It is simply unkind of you to start controversies thereby making other people uncomfortable." Such might be a response to the preceding paragraphs. Religion, politics, morality are private matters. People disagree about them and that's just how it is. Discussions of religion, politics, or morality are most often emotional, upsetting and unproductive. We should avoid them in order to have a smooth social life.
We see the result of this attitude towards, especially, morality in the present uproar over widespread sexual harassment and abuse. One half, according to some, one third, according to others, of all women have been sexually harassed or abused. No woman can ever feel safe from sudden unwanted sexual overtures. No woman can ever be certain that her relationships with men are professional or friendly without any sexual overtones.
Until now that has not been widely discussed because the women were afraid for their jobs and their advancement but also because we don't talk about serious matters like sexual domination by a male family members, male employers, male teachers, male coaches, random males. There is little serious discussion of a president who boasts of sexually harassing women. There is no one who asks: "What is the state of moral health of America when no woman, even female children, can feel safe?"
If America sent out an end of the year chatty chronicle, it too would have to avoid talking about morality or politics or religion because it has neglected those issues for too long and were it to speak of it now, it would have to be profoundly ashamed.
Were we to make America great again, we would have to expand our annual accounts of our lives to the issues that really matter, we would have to begin by thinking and talking about how we treat each other, about the political system which we called mendaciously a democracy, and our religion which more often than not preaches hate and imaginary superiority.