OP-EDS

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January 11, 2011

Diagnosing the post-holiday blues

The idealism characteristic of the holiday season cannot be sustained for the whole year

It’s that time of year again; the holidays are over, but somehow your imagination hasn’t quite gotten the message yet. Be honest. How many times in the last week or so have you caught a blinking light in your periphery and turned toward it fully expecting to find a string of Christmas lights, or heard people talking forebodingly of “work” and “responsibility” and felt as though you were hearing the words for the first time?

And all the while a voice from somewhere deep in your subconscious has probably been pestering you with the same seemingly innocuous question: Why couldn’t the holidays last just a little longer?

Of course, it’s absurd, you reason to yourself. The festivities surely have to end eventually. All those decorations would quickly become fire hazards, and the same handful of jingles repeated to no end would drive us mad at some point—supposing, that is, that we haven’t already succumbed to cardiac arrest from all the cookies.

But wait. What’s that you say? You’re not convinced? There’s more to Christmas than garlands and jingles? Well, what is it then?

Of the many wonders of the holiday season, the one I find most fascinating is our culture’s inability to determine what exactly all the fuss is about. Despite the unceasing war between commercializers of the season and religious zealots, most of us ignore the rhetoric and read into these holidays pretty much whatever we want to, motivating us to ask not about what their “true” meaning is, but rather what it’s not. For every person you find who says the holidays are about altruism and selfless giving, I can find you someone else for whom they are about partaking in the festivities and enjoying life. If you give me someone who believes the holidays are about humility and appreciating the simple things in life, I’ll give you someone who will tell you in all seriousness how much she looks forward to the glamour, the glitz, and the extravagance that the holidays entail. And then I can probably find you someone who believes just about all of the above, regardless of how contradictory the individual positions might seem to each other.

Nevertheless, there is a generality we can draw from these hectic dichotomies; we tend to think of the holiday season as the way the world ought to be, as a chance for us to reveal, if only for a matter of weeks, our ideal selves, whoever they may be. This analysis neatly shows that the apparent contradictions above stem from the (quite apparent) disparities in our ideal conceptions of society and ourselves.

But now the conundrum: if the holidays present us with an opportunity to embrace our ideal selves, what exactly precludes continuing to do so after they’re over? Why can’t we have ‘peace on Earth’ and ‘goodwill to men’ all year around?

It’s a compelling, but fatally flawed, suggestion. Don’t misinterpret me here; I don’t see anything fundamental to human nature that would make the sort of magnanimity, benevolence, or thankfulness that we strive for during the holidays impossible at other times of the year. The problem is that such a line of reasoning is founded on an illusion. The ‘better selves’ and ‘better society’ we pursue during the holidays represent our idealistic conceptions of the future, but these ideals don’t embody a mechanism to attain them. They are ends and not necessarily means.

If you can snap your fingers and live your ideal life (at least morally speaking) after the holidays, then by all means do so. But don’t worry if you can’t; there might actually be a very good reason why not. Maybe unfettered idealism is not always the best way to attain our ideals.

If you’re a good UChicago student, I can probably guess what you’re thinking right now: “Hmmm, someone spent some quality time with Machiavelli over break.” But there’s more to the story than that. Setting aside the possible need to compromise some of our ideals in order to achieve them, isn’t it also possible that idealism itself, if used in excess, could directly erode the very ideals it purports to advocate?

History is replete with examples of this thorny problem. Prohibitionists, when they succeeded in banning alcohol, actually made the substance vastly more harmful to society than it had ever been before. And yet they acted with the explicit intent of reducing such harm! Similarly, one hardly has to go far to see the same travesty played out in modern political discourse. For instance, in the immigration debate, both sides readily and perhaps shamelessly revert to idealistic solutions (of which aggressive deportation or, on the other hand, simple legalization are probably the most egregious) which detract from the too-often neglected central issue: drafting an immigration policy that is to the greatest benefit of all parties involved.

Which brings us back to the central issue of this column: Christmas simply is not designed to solve our world’s problems. It’s a celebration of the ideas and habits that we think are worth fighting for. Simply pretending these are already won, by blindly embracing the Christmas spirit, clearly does not constitute progress, as our experience with countless utopian social experiments might suggest.

So then are ‘peace on Earth’ and ‘good will towards men’ really attainable? I would offer a most emphatic yes. But if we’re really serious about pursuing these, we have to acknowledge that it might take more than just holiday cheer.

Tyler Lutz is a second-year in the College.

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