WASHINGTON -- I am myself, of course, filled nearly to the brim with goodwill to all men. Well, that isn't quite right. I possess a good deal of goodwill to a great many men. No, that's still a bit off. I am imbued with a measurable amount of goodwill toward a majority of men.
No, no, still not there. All right, now: I feel a large degree of &L; goodwill toward an extremely small group of men and a mild degree of goodwill toward a slightly larger but still relatively minute group; on the other side of the divide I feel a mild degree of ill will toward a like-sized group in the middle and an almost limitless degree of ill will toward an extremely small group at the far end of the spectrum.
Taking into account all the men toward whom I feel any degree of will, good or ill, the whole bunch amounts to something well under .00000000001 percent of the male population. For the remaining 99.99999999999 percent, I really don't feel much one way or the other. Nothing personal.
I'm not peculiar, at least not in this regard. Nobody really cares equally about everybody. If they did, the world wouldn't work. And everyone knows this. But there is a notion, which has gained some currency over the past few thousand years, that, during this season, for a few numinous weeks, we should pretend otherwise, in honor of Him who really did feel goodwill to all men. It's a bit of hypocrisy to the good, the argument goes.
I don't think so. For one thing, the season of goodwill is an active cause of suffering. It's commonly said that the depression and irritability that afflicts many people at this time of year has to do with the stress imposed by close contact with family members.
That may be one factor, but a far greater one is the aggravation caused by the mass pretense to altruism. Life brings us constantly into contact with people we cannot stand, often for excellent reason. This is always upsetting, but normally we are allowed at least the comfort of acknowledging, openly to ourselves, and by various signals, implicitly to our enemies, the reality of our hatreds.
Lawyers and meter minders
In the season of goodwill, we are denied even this minor balm. For weeks, we are obliged to exhibit warm wishes to people we do not like at all: hostile (and unhostile) vagrants in the street, killer bicycle messengers on the sidewalk, infomercial hosts, line jumpers at the movies, cell-phone talkers in restaurants, lawyers, meter minders.
A few years ago, I went to the annual White House Christmas party for the press. I doubted very much that the president and his wife wanted me there. I had recently written a long piece on Hillary Rodham Clinton that had not been kindly received, and I had written uncharitably of her husband as well.
But they had to invite me anyway, since I was a credentialed member of the White House press corps, and anybody with a credential gets invited to the Christmas party, including reporters whom the first couple have every personal reason to regard as mean, low, vicious, prying guttersnipes.
And because it is the season of goodwill to all men, the president and the first lady are obliged to stand still for three hours under bright lights and shake hands with, and pose for photographs with, guttersnipes. Which group included me in 1993. I still have the picture. There is Mr. Kelly and Mrs. Clinton and Mrs. Kelly and Mr. Clinton, four dear old friends. Neither my wife nor I look very comfortable, but the Clintons look like they are in pain.
And of course they were. The pretense of fondness was torture. December is the cruelest month, thanks to goodwill to all men. The following year, I resolved to do what I could to lower the level of cruelty. In 1994, I went to the party, but I skipped the presidential receiving line, so the first couple would at least be spared from seeing me. Last year and this, I dropped out altogether. It's my own small act of goodwill.
There are weightier reasons than the mere alleviation of human suffering for opposing goodwill to all men. There is the matter of ++ sin. The whole thing is perilously close to blasphemy. Adopting the pretense of goodwill to all men isn't honoring Christ, it's assuming Christ's role. Limitless love and boundless forgiveness: that is His job, not mine. As the theologian Lyle Lovett has observed, that's the difference between God and me.
And, indeed, between God and most people. I know a couple of saintly souls who actually go some distance toward the Christlike ideal of hating the sin and loving the sinner, but most people are no more capable of this than they are of winged flight. Actually, the evidence suggests there are many more people who hate the sinner but love the sin than the other way around. The drunk wallows in his drunkenness, the adulterer in his fornication. It's only sin in the abstract -- sin committed by others -- to which most people object.
Well, the argument goes, aspiring to Christly behavior is better than not aspiring to it, even if you fail to reach the goal. So, the season of goodwill is erring in the right direction.
This would be true, if aspirers to universal goodwill were forthright in admitting their failure. But I suspect most of them aren't. I suspect they assure themselves that they are indeed overflowing with the stuff. They are, in short, faking it. And faking doesn't make them better people. It makes them liars, that is, sinners.
Universal goodwill is a leading cause of seasonal sin. At least the sinner who admits he just can't hit Christ's standard commits the virtuous act of telling truth about himself, to himself and to God. What is more, in falsely assuming Godly qualities, and in (no doubt) rewarding himself for his pretense with bounteous amounts of self-congratulation, he is in a sense honoring a false god -- himself. He is a Yuletide self-idolater.
So repent, ye of goodwill. If you are feeling particularly warmly these days toward bike messengers, get your iniquitous self to confession.
Michael Kelly is editor of The New Republic, in which this article first appeared.
Pub Date: 12/20/96