23 December 2011

My Christmas Carol

Today I had an Ebenezer Scrooge experience.  Not in the “Christmas-is-a-Humbug”-sense that I usually associate with the old miser.  Nope, this one cut a little deeper, and nearer to the point: I was awakened to the fact that I had grown callous toward mankind.  Now don’t get me wrong—I instinctively care about almost everyone I know personally; it’s just the nameless, faceless mass toward which I had become unsympathetic and even cynical.  I love people in specific, but for people in general I had become "past feeling."

Scrooge, you’ll remember, felt about the same.  Dickens introduces him as “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”  He was tight-fisted and hard-hearted.  His real sin, however, was that he had decided “to edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance.”  I fear thatI have been doing the same.

My personal Christmas Carol started this morning when my mom asked me to go along to deliver groceries to a couple of families in the area.  A few vignettes:

(For some context, let me digress long enough to explain that the LDS Church provides basic foodstuffs to people in need.  There’s an entire infrastructure behind this: Church-owned farms and canneries and warehouses, all dedicated to this.  Church members are invited to fast once a month, donating money from the foregone meal to provide for those in need.  Others go even farther: one of my friends volunteers one day a week at a meat-packing plant south of Provo.  My mom is the president of the Relief Society, the women’s group for our congregation.  One of her duties is to help process “food orders” for people who need it—families who have fallen on hard times through unemployment or disability or illness or any of the myriad of incomprehensible roads which lead to not having enough money to even buy food.) 


At just after 8am, we pulled into a church parking lot where a semi-truck laden with milk and bread and such was parked in front of two long rows of grocery-filled plastic crates, each with a label identifying the family to whom the food belonged.  I glanced at a few of the labels—more out of habit than curiosity.  On two crates, side by side, I read the names of a kid I went to school with and one of my boyhood role models.  I was shocked and dismayed—both of these men are intelligent, articulate, and competent.  How was it that they came to the point where they couldn’t put bread on the table?  And if it happened to them, who else? And what more should I do? Or should I have done?


 The family where we delivered groceries was in a nice part of town.  This was their first food order.  A serial entrepreneur, the father has recently become underemployed—one of the many terrible additions to the vocabulary of this recession—and the family needed a temporary hand up while he moves out of state to finish his degree.  As we rung the doorbell and turned to unload the trunk, a red-cheeked woman came to the door.  Her five year-old, one of their three boys, kept asking, “What is this for, Mommy?”


I’m ashamed to admit it, but until today the nation’s recent economic woes have been mostly just interesting—a curiosity or a topic of study at business school.  Sure, I’ve noticed the neighborhoods filled with foreclosure signs and taken note as unemployment rises.  I’ve even discussed the downturn at length, couching countless individual devastations in euphemistic terms such as the “misery index” or “jobless recovery.”  But it never really hit home—not being closely or deeply affected by the recession, I remained somewhat aloof.  

Today, though, the words of Marley’s ghost echo loud and clear: "Business! Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

I can only hope that, like Scrooge, I can say: “I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse.”