“Some men see things as they are and ask why; I see things as they could be and ask why not”
-George Bernard Shaw (later paraphrased by Robert F. Kennedy)
At work, I’m called Grumpy Ed. It’s somewhat of an affectionate moniker, or at least I assume it is, since most people who use it seem to be smiling at me when they do.
In truth, I gave the handle to myself a number of years ago when I penned a sarcastic response to a spate of congratulatory messages that members of my profession were extending to themselves for various indicia of success that had come their way.
“I don’t have anything exciting to say about myself,” I wrote, “but I did stay at a Holiday Inn last night.” (You may recall those hilarious commercials that had that punch line.) I signed the note, “Grumpy Ed,” and before I knew it, I had obtained a self-created nickname.
The truth, as those who know me will attest, is that I am a “glass-half-empty” kind of guy. But let me explain.
I’m a a crushed idealist, a broken-hearted romantic, a would-be perfectionist in an imperfect world.
Simply put, I’ve never been able to overcome the sense that things should be better. Or, perhaps more accurately stated, I’ve never been able to reconcile the reality of our existence with the vision of what that existence could be.
I have dreams that are drawn from the most loving passages of the Bible, from the most beautiful sentiments of the great poets, from the most profound depths of philosophical musing, but I awake to a world that is torn by wars and injustice, to relationships that are riven by selfishness and cruelty, to political decisions that have been dictated by self-interest and demagoguery. With that kind of dichotomous existence, I submit that grumpiness is completely understandable.
As I get older, and lest there be any doubts, I’m most definitely on the older side of things in terms of years and experiences, I find my moments of pure happiness (other than those that come from my dreams) are fewer and farther between, and, to make matters worse, shorter when they do occur. Those moments are to be savored, for sure, but the savoring itself is more of a struggle with the knowledge that the moment will soon pass.
The holidays accentuate all of these feelings, and they are, for the most part, a less than joyous time for me. For openers, there is the religious component, which for a non-believer like me, is akin to being reminded constantly of a joy you don’t get to experience. True believers get the sense of re-birth or re-discovery with the various holidays that celebrate God’s mercy and love. I just get to look at the pictures and contemplate what makes them so attractive to others.
Religion is definitely part of what makes me grumpy. The idea of God is wonderful, but why is He so satisfied with such an imperfect creation? I get all the “free will” stuff, but, really, how can anyone feel the love (or the mercy) of a God who is content to let the world grow ever darker as His beloved creation (humans) make a mess of things?
And then there is the illegitimacy of the holiday celebrations, with Christmas ranking at the top of the list. Notwithstanding my lack of belief, I’d love to see a real sense of Christmas in the world. How could anyone not wish for peace and love throughout the world? But every year, the story and meaning of Christ’s birth, believable or not, is diminished, while the story of Santa Claus, certainly no more believable, is accentuated. And even Santa is less Christ-like in this new millennium of human existence. Today’s Santa is little more than an advertising tool, a none-too-gentle reminder to buy and consume, rather than the one who was a reminder of the joys of giving and sharing.
Commercialism is rampant in our land of plenty, even as many in that land are struggling to stay afloat. A tiny percentage of the country’s populace has accumulated tremendous wealth, while the vast majority of it has found it necessary to work harder just to avoid losing the little they have. Gated communities provide security for the few. Tract houses, many of them facing foreclosure, are the reality for the many.
And, at the same time, we seem to be angrier now than ever before. Tea party activists demand less government, while at the same time they dare anyone to mess with their Medicare. Liberals decry Obama’s ineffectiveness, while railing mightily against any from the right who attack his achievements. Our politics are a study in enraged impotence.
And we revel in our ignorance. Books are becoming the dinosaurs of our culture, replaced by TV sitcoms. Newspaper reporting will soon be completely non-existent, with serious blogs not far behind. Nothing that requires more than 150 words will be worthy of anyone’s attention.
The holidays should be a time to rediscover the potential for greatness in the human race. That potential most definitely exists. We have the mental capacity to solve all manner of problems, both scientific and interpersonal. We are able to learn from our mistakes and to grow into better functioning individuals and communities as a result.
We also have the ability to love, in the sense of putting others ahead of ourselves. We can sympathize and empathize. We can nurture and protect. We can give and share.
These are all manifestations, in a religious sense, of the idea of God. They are also emblematic of the best meaning of the holiday season that is now upon us.
Sadly, they will be lost to the other side of the human condition: the selfish pursuit of more of everything, the need to aggrandize our individual existence above all else, the propensity for laziness and inefficiency.
I will have moments this holiday season when I will be truly happy. They will be when I hear Handel’s “Amen” chorus, when I tell my wife I love her, when my sons come home again, when I ring in another new year with good friends.
I will have such moments, and for the rest, I will try, fervently, to be less grumpy.