Thanksgiving weekend formally initiates the holiday season. All the stores and shopping malls are decorated for Christmas. Many radio stations are playing holiday music. Village and town streets are clothed in holiday decorations.
There is a spirit of camaraderie in the air. There is a language of love and concern that is more pronounced throughout these days. People in general tend to put themselves out for others during this time of the year. There are holiday parties everywhere. People from every walk of life are focused on giving and sharing.
That climate of giving and sharing creates a wonderful spirit that most hope will last throughout the year. However, one needs to raise the question "is that spirit of giving grounded in substance or is it merely superficial rhetoric?"
So often we tend to give out of our excess and not from our need. Our larger community is exceptionally generous materially speaking. Few communities support all of the noble causes that live among us right here on the North Shore. However, sometimes it is easier to write a check then to give of one's time. Nothing is more valuable then the human connection, the human touch.
So often I have seen many miracles happen because of the unexpected human connection. Many of the miracles that occur don't just happen for the poor and broken. They also happen for the volunteers, for the person who made the time to give an hour to someone in need, even though they really did not have an hour to give.
It is those miracles that inspire so many of us to continue in human services, even though at times it is overwhelming and even painful.
As we begin this season of giving, one of the things that troubles me is the subtle prejudice and bigotry I witness escalating around us. Prejudice is a learned attitude. People are not born to hate and discriminate. Children learn this behavior from adults.
Oftentimes prejudice is very subtle, but nonetheless very destructive. When adults make racial comments couched in humor, that is still racism and it is wrong. When parents set parameters around friendships that are defined by ethnicity, religion and economics, that is wrong and another troubling face of prejudice.
Prejudice wears many faces. How many times as adults have we made disparaging remarks about a person because of his or her tattoos or body piercings? Possibly we become aware that a certain teenager has an addictions problem and we refer to him or her as a dirt bag and/or loser.
Maybe your daughter's friend spent time in jail and you immediately take the position that he is destined to delinquency and failure.
What about our contemporary lepers that we ostracize: people with HIV - AIDS and/or those whose sexual orientation is not heterosexual? The list continues to grow, especially since 9/11. A growing number of people have become hostile and disrespectful towards people with any Middle Eastern ties, especially if that is their nationality, even if they are American citizens. The meanness being expressed is unconscionable.
Recently a weather beaten seventeen year old came to see me. He was devastated. His parents died when he was ten. They were needle using drug addicts who died of AIDS. TR was abandoned. He had no family. Once his parents died and the cause of death was made known, TR was tested for HIV. He tested positive. He has been living with that knowledge since the age of twelve.
Presently he is a-symptomatic. He is healthy and is trying to make something of his life. His doctors believe with all the advances around this disease, TR could probably live a relatively healthy and long life.
Unfortunately, someone found out that he was HIV positive. Many of his peers started to distance themselves. He overheard parents telling their children to avoid him. Nasty things were posted on his locker. He is being treated like a modern day leper.
One afternoon, after a series of very hurtful confrontations, he just broke down. He couldn't understand why people were being so mean. He had never done anything to anyone. He is a good student. He is generous and outgoing, always willing to lend a helping hand. He never expected people to be so cruel.
Intellectually, he knows he cannot let people get him down. He tries, but as he says, "sometimes it hurts so much." It just reinforces TR's already self-imposed prison, where he often feels so hopeless.
TR is brilliant. He intends to graduate at the top of his South Shore high school class and get a scholarship for college. He wants to be a teacher or social worker. He is working hard every day not to let the bitterness he feels take hold of him. He sees going away to school as an opportunity for a new beginning. He will not allow people's bigotry to paralyze him.
On Election Day, I received an e-mail from a young man who lived in Hope House in the late eighties. He came to the house not because he was a troubled young man, but rather because he was living in a very dysfunctional and emotionally abusive circumstance. He talked about that move as the one that gave him his life back.
AJ successfully graduated from high school and went on to college in Buffalo. What used to really upset him in those days was how people made judgments and assessments on kids like him when they really didn't know the deal. He said some people would really make an effort to get to know him and others would avoid him like the plague because of where he lived. This prejudice really disturbed and hurt him.
Determined not to judge a book by its' cover and grateful for a life revived, AJ wanted to give back. His life's journey led him to the North of Maine and public service. On Election Day, he was elected to the Maine House of Representatives as the first Green Party candidate in the state's history. He was not ashamed of his roots or where his life had come from. He attributes the birth of his social conscious and commitment to public service to the days when he lived in a residence on Main Street in Port Jefferson that saved his life.
Maybe during this Holiday Season, we can all work harder at not being distracted by gossip and meanness. Rather than judging by externals, perhaps we can make a greater effort to get to know the heart of a person.