Many of us are familiar with the popular song, “We are the world” and we’ve probably heard the lyrics on countless occasions, on the radio, in videos and in television commercials: “We are the world, we are the children, we are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving”.
Written mostly by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, it was recorded by a super group of musicians in 1985. “We Are the World” was eventually cited as the biggest selling single in both US and pop music history. Inspired by the song “Do they Know it’s Christmas?” the first so-called “charity record” that brought together a dream team of socially conscious and philanthropic musicians, it established a tradition of entertainers who band together for charity causes. The promotion and merchandise generated by “We Are the World” raised over $63 million (equivalent to $138 million today) for humanitarian aid in Africa and the US. The tradition of “charity concerts” continues to this day. The latest version of the song is the video “We Are the World 25 for Haiti“ which was produced in response to the devastating earthquake that occurred there in 2010.
As we are reminded each and every day, there are plenty of reasons to be gloomy about the state of the world today. On the global level we see the threat of nuclear war, terrorism, and endemic poverty. Closer to home we worry about an embattled presidency, the tarnished image of America, the culture wars daily stoked by politicians and the media. We may feel that we’re living in an age of unprecedented violence and hostility, yet it’s easy to argue that every generation has had its share of problems: two World Wars and a host of “minor” wars should be enough to wipe out any delusionary nostalgic views of the recent past. What’s more, as far back as ancient Rome Juvenal was writing bitter criticism on the problems afflicting his society. It would be easy to get depressed about the state of our world today, but human beings are resilient and nature has hardwired us for survival. Christmas is an appropriate time of year to look for the bright spots that renew our faith in human beings. As individuals there isn’t much that we can do about the negativity that we encounter on a daily basis, the “haters”, the whiners, the abusive and the violent are everywhere. However, there is also no need to surrender to it, let’s think instead about all those who are working towards making changes for the better. All around us there are signs that as a species, we’re not as hopeless as it seems on a daily basis.
I think of organizations such as UNICEF whose mission is to safeguard children’s rights and access to health, education, and safety; of “Smile Train” and “Operation Smile” two charity organizations where doctors work pro bono to change the lives, health and future opportunities of children in the developing world born with cleft palates. I think of “Doctors Without Borders” who risk their lives to bring medical aid to war-torn countries. These organizations are made possible by the goodwill of individuals like us, who give their services–or at least their financial support. Some of these inspiring people may be your neighbors, as they are mine. A local physician of my acquaintance, James, could have started a practice straight out of a prestigious medical school, instead he chose to defer the start of his career and signed up for a two year stint in “Doctors Without Borders”. Sent to Afghanistan, he risked his life and was indeed wounded. When he returned from the war he started his practice in a tiny office with a waiting room that could accommodate only two patients at a time. He continues to do pro bono work. I think of volunteers like one of my former students who, while her friends are partying, instead spends her New Year’s Eve distributing food to the homeless in New York City. The Pastor of the local Lutheran Church related to me the story of a family who took in a young man, a perfect stranger to them, because he had been thrown out by his own parents and thus made homeless.
We may not have the power to make government policy or to stop global warming or to alleviate poverty on a global scale, but it is in our power to help our neighbors to the right and left of us. The motto “think global and act local” is a perfect reminder that we count even as individuals and we can make a difference. Religious holidays have come under fire by the scourge of political correctness, but “Christmas” is a perfect time to remember this and to take action. Make a donation to your favorite charity, offer your services where they can help. But at the very least, know that whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukah or Kwanza, wishing your neighbor health and happiness is not a political statement, it’s an expression of the goodwill that we should have for each other as human beings.
“We are the world, we are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day…
There comes a time when we heed a certain call
When the world must come together as one
There are people dying
And it’s time to lend a hand to life
The greatest gift of all”