In the global cataclysm of war and terrorism, the small actions of individuals may seem insignificant. But in fact, they are what matter most.
My last column critiqued feminist male bashing and called for good will toward men. It stated, "the father who worked every day to make you safe and comfortable is not the enemy." An angry reader wrote to accuse me of being raised in a "white, middle-class, nuclear family." She dismissed me as coming from a privileged background that was out of touch with harsh reality.
Her underlying assumption: anyone who argues for good will between the sexes does so out of ignorance, not from experience. Exactly the opposite is true. Speaking from a background of abuse, I have seen individual acts of kindness and compassion accomplish more than political analysis or government programs could imagine.
When I was sixteen, I ran away from home because the streets were safer than the house in which I'd been raised. The death of my father several years earlier had so destroyed the family that my mother was given to fits of uncontrollable violence. After a particularly brutal incident, I grabbed my coat, ran through the front door and did not return.
It was winter, shortly after Christmas, and there was nowhere to sleep without risking the possibility of freezing to death. Then I found a church with unlocked doors. That night, and for several nights thereafter, I slept on a bench far in the back corner, waking up constantly because I was afraid of being discovered and turned out.
One morning, I woke to find myself covered with a blanket. Someone had discovered me. Instead of throwing me into the snow, he or she made sure I was warm. I have never had the chance to tell the person how much that single act of kindness has meant to my life. Whenever I am overwhelmed by cynicism, I remember the blanket and I discover a bit more good will somewhere within myself.
I have seen similar acts of compassion change the lives of other people.
My husband and I are ham radio operators. Each year the local hams band together to make sure that children who cannot visit malls can still talk to Santa. In co-ordination with parents, the hams set up portable radios at hospitals, domestic violence shelters, etc... Each child, in turn, sits in front of a microphone beside a ham operator who broadcasts a call to the North Pole. An "elf" at a remote location answers, and soon Santa is speaking directly to the child, asking about pets and homework assignments...details that the parents have provided in advance.
We call it "SantaClausNet" and one story has been repeated many times among our group and beyond. A few years ago three local hams were "on duty" at our community center when a father carried in his seven-year-old son, Jim, to talk with Santa. They sat to one side, waiting and watching as other children took their turns.
The hams took a special interest in Jim: from the pre-interview with his father, they knew Jim had not only been ill for some months but also that his mother had died almost a year ago. This would be his first Christmas without her. The report said Jim was "very shy."
When his time came, Jim sat in his father's lap and stared at the microphone. The ham called the North Pole. An elf named Murray responded and addressed Jim by name, but the boy said nothing. Santa asked Jim about his pet dog; his eyes widened but he said nothing. Jim held onto his father and kept staring mutely into the microphone. Nothing the hams did could coax the boy to speak. When SantaNet was over and the hams packed up the gear, they all felt a bit depressed about the boy they couldn't help.
The next day, one of the hams spread happy news. Jim's father had phoned him in tears. When he and his son had been safely alone in the parking lot, Jim had pulled on his father's hand and said, "Daddy, Santa Claus talked to me." It was the second time Jim had spoken since his mother's death.
My commitment to good will and compassion is not the result of ignorance. It comes from a weathered appreciation of how a small kindness can profoundly affect a person's life.
Too many people today believe that "the personal is political," that every human interaction should be subjected to political analysis and processing. First and foremost, life should be personal. We all fall into some category or other—male, middle class, black, Protestant—but first and foremost we are human beings with a shared humanity.
One of my favorite quotes is from the anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can actually change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has." Never doubt that small acts of kindness can change the world. Even the ones you forget, like drawing a blanket over a stranger. Even the ones you think are wasted, like failing to coax a child to speak.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
McElroy is the editor of Ifeminists.com. She also edited Freedom, Feminism, and the State (Independent Institute, 1999) and Sexual Correctness: The Gender Feminist Attack on Women(McFarland, 1996). She lives with her husband in Canada.