BROOKLYN, N.Y. — My son went to an elite high school in New York and one of his best friends is from India. They get together whenever they’re back from college. He’s a very reserved kid who still doesn’t seem entirely comfortable being an American.
“Are you Muslim or Hindu?” I ask him.
“Hindu, sort of.”
“Do you celebrate Christmas?” my wife asks.
“I think so,” he says. “My mother hasn’t quite decided yet. I went to a Catholic elementary school and my parents didn’t want me to feel left out so they always had a big Christmas tree. Now that I’m graduated, though, I’m not sure it’s going to continue.”
“So you’re sort of straddling the cultures right now.”
“I guess so,” he says. “But I’ll tell you one thing. People in New York are always a lot nicer around Christmas.
It’s true. And it’s nice to see that somebody outside the culture recognizes it.
When we moved into our Brooklyn neighborhood fifteen years ago, the black family across the street had a teenage boy who had a lot of very loud friends. They’d have parties on the stoop and play deafening music. I had to over a couple of times and asked him to turn it down. He cooperated but despised me as one of the yuppies that were ruining his neighborhood. My wife and I tried to be friendly, giving him a graduation present when he finished high school, but relations remained very frosty.
Then one Christmas morning I walked outside my house at ten o’clock in the morning and ran right into him. We were the only people on the street. After a moment’s hesitation, we smiled at each other and exchanged greetings for the first time in five years. Ever since then things have been fine. Today he’s married and has a child of his own and we talk all the time. It just took one Christmas morning to get things started.
By all odds, Christmas should be the most depressing time of the year. It’s the solstice, it gets dark ridiculously early, it’s already cold and you now the whole winter is still on the way. Catch yourself in an early November mood and you’ll know how miserable December could be.
Yet it’s just the opposite. It’s the “the brightest time of the year,” “that time of year when the world falls in love,” and all those other clichés that are absolutely accurate. People are the friendliest, most relaxed, kind and generous. Why? Because their good will makes it so.
Not every culture has this. Not every culture has a general truce when people forget the competitions and complaints of the rest of the year and exchange good cheer. And for this we have to thank Christianity.
Christianity is a religion based on forgiveness. After all, it was Jesus who told people to “turn the other cheek” and promised the forgiveness of sins. As a cultural trait, this tendency toward forgiveness and reconciliation is one of those habits of the heart that is little noted and much underrated.
ABOUT A DECADE AGO, a political scientist named Robert Axelrod published a very influential book called The Evolution of Cooperation. Axelrod based his research on a game called “The Prisoners’ Dilemma,” where two people have the opportunity to cooperate in a situation where each can also betray the other. If both players cooperate, they both get a middling reward. If one player successfully betrays the other, by refusing to co-operate while the other tries, then the betrayer gets a big score. But if both players betray the other, they each get nothing. Axelrod invited mathematicians, ethicists, and computer theorists all over the world to submit strategies for the game, then played them off against each other in an extended competition.
The winning strategy turned out to be the simples — Tit for Tat. A Tit for Tat player cooperates on the first round, then each time copies the other player’s action from the previous round. If you cooperate, I cooperate. If you betray, then I betray. Over the long term, this strategy elicited the most cooperation from other players. On this kind of voluntary reciprocal understanding, he said, civilizations are born.
There was only one problem. With certain players, Tit for Tat failed completely. Most problematic was what could be called the “neurotic.” The neurotic player starts with a bad attitude and betrays on the first round. Then he plays Tit for Tat on each succeeding round. After that one bad beginning, the neurotic and Tit for Tat never cooperate. There are also players that have nasty attitudes and will betray even after a long series of successful co-operations. With these players, Tit for Tat also has trouble adjusting.
So the inventors went back for a few more refinements and found an even better strategy, called “forgiving” Tit for Tat. “Forgiving” generally plays Tit for Tat, but occasionally allows a betrayal go unpunished. This breaks the cycle of self-defeat and gets both players back on track. The same strategy works at setting things right with other recalcitrant players.
That’s what Christmas is about. Christmas is the time when we wipe the slate clean, when people are generous and forgiving, when the animosities of the past year can be forgotten, and when everyone gets the chance to make a fresh start. It’s a way of breaking those past cycles of self-defeat.
Two weeks ago I was at the Jerusalem Summit, an interfaith conference trying to promote peace in the Middle East. One of the speakers was Naomi Darwish, a Palestinian woman whose father was killed on a raid into Israel in the 1950s. She grew up hating Jews and learning arithmetic by saying, “If you have ten Jews and you kill five, how many do you have left?”
Then she went to the University of Cairo and began to learn more about the world. Finally she emigrated to the United States. With tears in her eyes, she recounted the overwhelming emotion of finding Jews, Christians, and Moslems in this country interacting without suspicion or hatred. She had never encountered this kind of good will. The combination of American generosity and forgiveness was overwhelming. As a result, she has founded Arabs for Israel and is an inspirational speaker before groups of all faiths.
It is in these moments when the resentments of the past can be forgotten and everyone given a fresh start that the hope for peace on earth good will toward men lies. Christmas provides us with one of them every year. There should be many, many more.
Merry Christmas, everybody.
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