It is hard to believe that another year has passed. So much has happened during this past year. Our world continues to be challenged by the on-going threats of terrorism and violence. Thousands of families continue to mourn, thousands of children are parentless. As a nation, we are moving forward. Hopefully with a cautious reserve, to work more aggressively toward peaceful alternatives in the Middle East. There is a profound awareness that we need to live and act differently.
As the New Year unfolds, over one hundred thousand people have died, with the numbers still rising due to the terrible human disaster in Southeast Asia. For many people around the world, they are beginning the New Year with a sense of numbness as they watch the horrific pictures and video clips of what has taken place in Southeast Asia.
However, in spite of that landscape, as the New Year begins there is so much to be grateful for, so much to hope for and still so much that needs to be changed and/or improved.
Each holiday season I am amazed at the depth of people's generosity, from our local churches and temples with their outreaches to our schools and colleges pitching in to touch people in need. This year has been especially touching. The many hands and hearts that come together are breathtaking and at times overwhelming. I only wish we could bottle that spirit of generosity and tap into it throughout the year.
People genuinely give of their treasure, even though these are difficult economic times. Equally impressive are the growing number of people stepping forward to give of their time and talent. So many charitable efforts are effective and successful because of the generosity of people's personal human gifts that cannot be assigned a price tag.
This year I have seen firsthand the exceptional generosity of some local physicians and dentists who went the distance and then some. A local cardiologist agreed to see that a college student with no family or financial support would have the vital heart operation he needs. Also, a growing list of retired teachers are making a profound difference, giving their time regularly to work with some very hard to reach young men and women.
Each New Year, we all begin with a resolution that we hope to keep. Being who we are, by day two or three, we have broken the resolution or even forgotten what we have promised to do differently.
As I was thinking about this New Year, a few things came to mind. I have become very sensitive to the lack of tolerance and respect for those among us who are different, whether it's because of color, religion, sexual orientation or economic status. In many quarters, the intolerance is not overt, but rather very subtle. This is oftentimes much more infectious. Every semester in my sociology class at Suffolk Community College, my students share horrific stories of hate, discrimination and blatant prejudice.
So my first recommendation is that we work harder at respecting all people, no matter what their race, color, creed, religion or sexual orientation. Respect costs nothing. It shapes everything. There is no need to gossip or speak disrespectfully to anyone. People in public service (including religious people) need to be more respectful. Those in need of those services need to be more respectful. Respect should be freely given without condition or judgment.
We all have to work harder at being less judgmental of the human circumstances and situations that we don't understand. We should never judge a book by its' cover. We should never judge another by the color of one's skin, the clothes one wears, the piercings or tattoos one has or the lifestyle one embraces. If we judge less and respect more, the violence that is infecting our communities will be substantially reduced.
My second recommendation is that we need to work on patience and becoming more sensitive to the fact that all life is fragile. We always seem to be in a hurry to get to no place fast. In our racing, we sometimes fail to appreciate the richness around us. We miss so much. Our technology and active lives are cheating us of so many significant connections with people. Some of us are missing out on some important moments with our children. Others are missing opportunities to strengthen relationships with friends and loved ones. The possibility for new connections, new opportunities and new friendships gets lost in the race to do everything yesterday. We all need to slow down and smell the flowers before they die.
This holiday season I presided over two funerals that need not have been celebrated. They were for a young man and a young woman, both raised and nurtured in our own community, who did not need to pass away. Each was very different, yet the same. They could not find the inner peace that we all seek. They could not keep their inner demons in check. They both left families and friends asking the question "why" and torturing themselves as to whether they had done enough.
Both families went the distance and then some. However, when you are trapped deep inside with pain and a sense of hopelessness, it is sometimes impossible to unshackle them.
However, we should never stop trying or hoping that we might reach them. The burden of their journeys only further reminds us that all life is fragile and that we really do need each other.
As the New Year unfolds, let's not become blinded by the selfishness and greed that sometimes blocks us from seeing and hearing another crying out for help.
My last recommendation is that we all need to work harder at giving of our substance and not of our excess and to be a people of gratitude. There is not a charity alive that would not accept a material donation, big or small, but this recommendation is not about giving materially. Americans are known for their material generosity. We all could work harder at sharing our talents more creatively and courageously.
It is clear to me that the government is never going to get the formula right. It will continue to set people up for failure and enable people to be dependent on social welfare rather than enabling them to be more self-reliant. Welfare reform was supposed to transform or at least positively reconfigure the social landscape for the poor. The poor are voiceless. We need to be their voice.
On Christmas Eve as I was setting up for our annual Candlelight Christmas Eve liturgy at Pax Christi, an old man who was one of our guests tapped me on the shoulder. He wanted to shake my hand and say thank you. This would be the first Christmas in years that he would be in a safe, warm place.
Jack is in his late seventies, early eighties. He is a veteran of WW II. All of his family has passed. A number of years ago he had a breakdown and lost everything. He became one of the voiceless, sleeping in the woods or in a box along the train tracks.
He said his greatest gift this Christmas was the fact that we made him feel like a somebody. He told me he was born into poverty and that his best Christmas as a young boy was the year everyone made something. He made a candle for his Mom out of used wax and made a card that said, "you are the light of my life." Then he told me what his sister gave him. She gave him a little sugar packet with a handmade card that said, "Jack, you are the sweetest boy I know, love Sis." After Jack shared, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a tattered little sugar packet to show me. He beamed like he was a boy again. The packet must have been over sixty years old.
Again, he thanked me, but I stopped him and said, "Jack, thanks for reminding me of the real reason for this season."
This year we have been painfully reminded that we are all vulnerable and are not invincible. All life is sacred, but temporary. Thus, whatever we can do to make life better, we need to do it now. We may not pass this way again.
So, as the New Year unfolds, think about it, pray about it and act positively! Realize that you can make a difference that does count! Happy New Year.