Timothy E. OConnell

Don and his three colleagues were strolling the aisles of the department store, singing holiday carols as they’d been hired to do. Wrapped in colorful scarves, jaunty caps on their heads, they gave a wondrously festive feel to the bustle of the shopping experience. The fact that they were very talented musicians, blending their voices into rich and intriguing harmonies, only made it better.

They came, in due course, to the cosmetics department. Don caught the eye of a small Asian saleswoman. Do you sing Silent Night’? she quietly asked. Of course they did. The group started their rendition, focusing on the special nuances they’d so carefully developed. Suddenly another sound! Don looked. The saleswoman was singing. A sweet, clear sound. A beautiful soprano voice. But what words? Suddenly, it became evident: she was singing the traditional carol in Korean.

The group leader looked at Don and the others and gave a subtle signal. The quartet stopped singing the words, switching instead to a soft, rich humming sound. And after the briefest shy hesitation, the saleswoman accepted her role and gave herself to the song. Together they soared on the wings of the tune and of its gentle, supportive harmony. People turned. Shoppers stopped. A hush fell over the department. The song claimed the space and the momentand their hearts. The little group of five followed their music to its peak and then slowly, gently down to its chord of rest. Sleep in heavenly peace. A silence, a shared and cherished silence. And then applause that rolled through the store, up and down the aisles, that enveloped the singers in love, returning to them the gift they’d created for all to enjoy.

There, in the unlikely setting of a department store, one of life’s important lessons had been made clear. In the quest to live with joy and peace, we can only go part-way by ourselves. But together, arm in arm, we can achieve the dreams of our spirit. And when that happens, what beautiful music we make!

It is difficult for us to appreciate fully how true this is, this interdependence that marks our human journey. Indeed, the temptation to separate ourselves from our neighbors, to view our individual growth as competing with the demands of community, is an especially American temptation.

There is hardly anything more characteristic of Americans, after all, than our love of freedom. But many scholars believe this love of freedom, as beautiful as it is, can become our undoing. And when does that happen? When it degenerates into the evil triplets: individualism, consumerism and violence.

It is so easy, for example, for us to understand freedom as nothing else than individual license, as my right to do whatever I want and your responsibility to stay the heck out of my way. We can be tempted to see everything and everyone outside of ourselves as the enemy. Whether it is the activities of government structuring society for the common good or the needs of my family and friends, my neighbors and colleaguesI can be tempted to view all of it as enemy. And when I do that, I give in to the evil fallacy called individualism.

So one of our particular American curses is that our concern to maximize the good of individual freedom can lead us to lose the very thing we need in order to achieve the good of individual fulfillment. And why are we tempted to accede to this curse? The answer lies in the second of the evil triplets. It goes by the name consumerism, our addiction to things in preference to people. The lives of many of us are filled with things we do not really need. And why do we covet these things so much? Some will answer that the culprit is advertising. But more deeply, the culprit is an overall environment, as near and as invisible as the air we breathe. This environment focuses our attention on things. It tells us that things measure our worth as persons. It invites us to evaluate the success of our lives by the things we have. But that is not the worst of it. Individualism might be a harmless fallacy, consumerism might be a modest addiction. But mix them together, and violence inevitably follows. Indeed, wars are almost always fought over things, protecting them or trying to acquire them.

To a frightening degree, violence is a triplet never far behind its siblings, individualism and consumerism. In fact, we can picture these three as points on an endless triangle. Each leads to the others, all of them interconnect. And together they wreak havoc on our dreams of a life lived with joy and peace. They guarantee our spirits can never freely breathe.

Is there hope? Of course there is. Since the destructive triangle of the evil triplets can be started anywhere, it can also be broken anywhere. Opt for peace instead of violence. Choose to live for people instead of things, with simplicity instead of ostentation. And most particularly work to replace antagonism with alliance, competition with compassion. Do this, and hope will quickly follow.

When I was at graduate school in New York City, I got to know a young man who lived upstairs in the same building. His parents’ home was not far away, in Brooklyn, but it was too far to commute each day. So he lived at our rooming house during the week, returning to his parents’ home every weekend. One weekend John invited me to come to Sunday dinner.

John’s ethnic heritage was Italian. Although his family was in many ways utterly Americanized, they still cherished some strong Italian traditions. Perhaps foremost among those traditions, I discovered, was the Sunday dinner. We began at one o’clock in the afternoon and finished at seven in the evening. During that time we never stopped eating, though always at a leisurely pace and in amazingly moderate amounts. The food was wonderful. The table arrangements were gracious and beautiful. But what I most remember, now 20 years later, was the conversation at that meal.

John’s mother would serve one course of the meal. We’d enjoy the food, savoring it slowly and praising the cook. Then we’d be done, proud of our empty plates. I expected the dishes to be removed. But no, the conversation would continue, comfortably, for another 15 or 20 minutes. Eventually John’s mother would judge the moment to proceed had come. She’d rise, begin the clearing of the plates, and move on to the next course.

And what did they talk about in those intervals? Absolutely everything. They asked about me and my work. They seemed truly interested. They tarried over the details I shared, remarked on them, asked more, offered compliments and comments. They talked about themselves, telling me as much as I wanted to know, answering my interested questions and enjoying my sincere responses. One by one the parents turned to each of their children. They inquired how the week had gone in school, about progress on the sports teams, about their various friends. And these were not quick, perfunctory questions. They were extended conversations in which each child in turn was the friendly and loving focus of attention.

In the end, every person around that table felt heard. Each one of us became known in amazing detail and appreciated in very specific and pertinent ways. These individuals reestablished themselves as a family through that meal. And to a memorable degree I became part of their family. Welcomed sincerely, embraced enthusiastically, loved genuinely, I shared in the beauty and the love that made this family real.

The customs of that wonderful Italian-American family are not my customs, at least not entirely. But I’ve had the chance to express my own variation on the theme of mealtime sharing, a variation rooted in my own history as well as in theirs. One year a group of us were gathered for Thanksgiving Day. It was the first time in my life I’d hosted this annual gathering. For once, I hadn’t traveled to my relatives in another state. Instead, a local gathering had been arrangedone of those fascinating gatherings where one person invites another, who in turn knows of someone else who’s looking for a place to go. The total was seven people, no one of whom knew everyone before they gathered around this table.

We’d taken our places. The food had been placed before us. And then it was time to give thanks. I opened my mouth to pray. I noted that we all came from different families, that our love felt stronger pulls to people far away than to one another. But I offered the thought that this only brought into our room, around our table, a wonderful group of people, gathered here on the wings of our thoughts and imaginations. I gave thanks for all those relatives and friends. I celebrated the serendipitous way that we seven had come to be a community of thanks and the small but valuable gift we’d become to one another. I acknowledged the gifts that had come to each of usand to those we lovedin the past year. For all of this I sincerely prayed with thanks. And all those around the table answered with an Amen that was just as sincere. There we were, arm in arm, hand in hand. And I felt wonderfully blessed.

Timothy E. O’Connell, a professor of ethics at Loyola University Chicago, is the author of Let Your Spirit Breathe: Living With Joy and Peace (1999).

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