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In praise of the liberty-loving festival of Christmas

Opinion

Christmas is a time to rediscover the good in each other and ourselves, writes economics commentator Richard Blandy.

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Why has Christmas become a truly international festival, even in societies that are not even nominally Christian?

Because Christmas says that the only thing that really matters at the end of the day is babies. Not power, nor wealth, nor intellectual or physical prowess – just babies. Every birth celebrates our survival as a family, as a group, as a nation, as a species.

Christmas grips human beings’ consciousness because the image of the baby in the manger is such a wonderful symbol of faith in the value of ordinary human existence. How else to express our hope in the meaning of our being than through a newborn child?

Apart from its momentous religious significance for Christians, Christmas is marvellous for everyone, because it celebrates the value of the life of every individual, however great or humble. It is a profoundly democratic and liberty-loving festival, expressing confidence in the worth of individual human expression.

Like Oriental philosophy, Christmas tells us that the quality of a life derives from trying to be the best sort of person one is capable of, and from finding harmony with existence. Climbing to the “top” is fundamentally pointless ego-tripping, unless it furthers one’’s attainment of identity with the rest of creation.

Two marvellous, 40-year-old, best-sellers (that had strong impact on me when I was much younger) are on this theme. Both are still available from online booksellers. I warmly recommend them to my readers.

In words and pictures about two caterpillars, Stripe and Yellow, Trina Paulus in Hope for the Flowers captures the dreadful discovery of those whose lives have been devoted to reaching the top: there is nothing up there.

Stripe and Yellow meet and fall in love. Stripe is an ambitious and ruthless climber, willing to tread on any other caterpillar to get ahead. Yellow doesn’’t like doing that. She decides to make an early change into a butterfly and shows Stripe that a life of floating as a butterfly is better than a life dedicated to climbing over other caterpillars to “get to the top”. And they live happily ever after….

The only real way to get high, Stripe and Yellow show us, is by empathy.

Some communities have made the mistake of believing that sameness equals goodness and have paid a terrible price for their error. Differences are a wonderful expression of the scope of human possibility which correlates not at all with personal quality.

Robert Pirsig makes the same point in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, by contrasting the approaches and satisfactions of mountain climbers who, on the one hand, seek to conquer the mountain and, on the other, seek to become one with the mountain.

To become a good motorcycle mechanic, Pirsig argues, one must develop feeling and regards for the integrity and quality of bikes. The dynamic quality of a piece of music or a painting can be recognised and experienced before a technical explanation has been constructed as to why it is a great piece of music.

Set as a story of a trip on a motorcycle by a father and son, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance carries us not only across much of America, but winds up as well as a trip through 2000 years of Western philosophy. Pirsig’’s book sold five million copies worldwide after being rejected by more than 100 publishers.

Christmas is a special time because it encourages us to feel good towards others and towards existence generally. We can then feel good about ourselves.

Christmas gives us the opportunity to see more clearly the 24-carat gold in our lives, and, by the same token, to see the prizes for which we all too readily lay waste our years for what they really are: putty medals on leather chains.

Christmas memories are curiously vivid in the strange scrapbook of personal history that floats up from our subconscious.

One Christmas Eve I particularly remember was in 1966 (50 years ago, for heaven’s sake) when I was a graduate student at Columbia University in New York. My wife and daughter and I lived on the edge of Harlem, financially and geographically below the poverty line. That Christmas Eve, I unknowingly lost our Christmas-break $50 in the local store, on the corner of
125th Street and Broadway.

Desperately searching for it, later, I asked the manager of the store (who occupied an elevated, open office facing the aisles so he could watch that the stock was not being knocked off), whether anyone had found a $50 note and handed it in. The store manager broke into tears: a small boy from the neighbourhood had found it on the floor and handed it in to him. Such an
event had never happened to him before.

That was the best Christmas present my wife and I ever had, and it came from a kid whose name I will never know who lived in a tough part of a tough town, where my family and I were officially aliens. Incidentally, the store and adjacent subway station, elevated at that point on Broadway, were later firebombed and left as burnt-out shells for years.

Christmas is a great time for rediscovering the good in each other, especially in those in whom one has avoided discovering any such quality over the preceding year. In my case, that includes the good (but misguided!) people who have found this column to be something less than a combination of Samuelson’’s economics, Shaw’’s wit and Russell’’s philosophy.

If the ranks of the good were to include only those who marched to the same drummer, the world would soon be in a pretty fix.

Some communities have made the mistake of believing that sameness equals goodness and have paid a terrible price for their error. Differences are a wonderful expression of the scope of human possibility which correlates not at all with personal quality.

The political genius of Australia’s democracy lies in its provision of myriad ways by which our differences can be expressed without calling into question the convivial basis of our community.

As one of the great democracies, Australia is a fortunate place in which to be able to celebrate Christmas.

For all our faults, I have never encountered people who treated each other better than Australians do. As of Christmas 2016, we remain a very lucky country: a good place for babies to be born.

Richard Blandy is an Adjunct Professor of Economics at the University of South Australia, an Emeritus Professor of Economics at Flinders University, and a contributor to InDaily.

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