Season to humbly engage with community

Robert Forsyth

22 December 2019 | The Canberra Times

For us, Christmas can’t come early enough. We seem to be not quite ourselves.

It’s been quite an anxious, shrill and divisive year, and some time to focus on community and what unites us will be very welcome.

At year’s end the long, crippling drought is felt most keenly in the bush, but its reality is now evident in the cities as well.

The bushfires have been so widespread and fierce that people used language like “apocalyptic” to describe them.

There has been a Herculean effort both to fight the fires and to help deal with the effects of the drought.

And yet the worrying thing is that deep down we know that, in the short to medium term at least, there is nothing we can really do about them. And maybe not even in the longer term.

Perhaps because of this, among other reasons, there has of late been an uneasy and harsh tone to public debate.

And there are ongoing divisions among us on political, moral, age, religious and even geographical grounds.

Maybe it’s time for a break? A Christmas break!

It is so easy to live in a world of our own closed prejudices and convictions, although very hard to know that’s what they are. There is so much each of us don’t know.

Christmas can be comforting but it’s also complex, because in fact there are a number of different Christmases going on at the same time.

For Christians like myself, it is primarily a religious celebration.

But you get some idea of how complex it all is when you realise that it was the devout Christians in the American colonies, England and Scotland who outlawed the celebration of Christmas in the 17th century. (In Scotland Christmas Day only became a public holiday in 1958.)

Then there is that most obvious Christmas – the consumer Christmas.

This one begins months ahead of the actual day.

And while it is customary to complain about the commercialisation of Christmas, we also worry about whether we are all spending enough to keep the retail sector healthy.

To those two you can add the start-of-holiday Christmas – the one that is the door to the summer holiday season.

But underneath all these there is another Christmas.

The Christmas of community good will. This Christmas is for everyone.

It is the reason we wish neighbours we hardly know “Merry Christmas.”

It is why we live it up a little at work Christmas parties. It is why we have family get-togethers around this time.

It is why we all think that to let someone have lunch alone on December 25 is a travesty.

I don’t want to overplay this community Christmas. But it is a lovely thing, even if it is brief.

And it does give us a moment to end the year better, a time to focus on community and what unites us.

Let me suggest three things we could do.

The first is to consciously focus on affirming community. We are much more than a mass of individuals. We are a whole network of interacting communities and connections.

One of the good things that has come out of the terrible fires is the way fighting them and their effects brings us together as volunteers, carers, professionals and families.

Let Christmas be a time to get to know neighbours and make connections with others. Let it be a time to give help where help is needed.

This leads to a second – let us genuinely seek to practice inclusion in the face of diversity. It is a pity that the words “inclusion” and “diversity” have become somewhat weaponised, ironically, in enforcing uniformity. But they need not be.

Genuine inclusion means taking the effort to humbly and respectfully engage with another who is different. It means acknowledging a common humanity. It means breaking through the barrier that says you can only be close to those who agree with you.

Lastly, be curious and open to seek what is true.

It is so easy to live in a world of our own closed prejudices and convictions, although very hard to know that’s what they are. There is so much each of us don’t know.

This is not a call to abandon deep convictions but to hold them with a degree of humility.

A new year and new issues will be on us soon enough. Let’s end this one well.

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