The Fiscal Cliff: Like the Wall Street Crash, “We Need a Little Christmas”

There are two hackneyed words that have droned on the web, radio, television, social media, and even in some conversations I’ve had this week: fiscal cliff. Not being an economist, I confess I dismissed most of it, just interpreting it as another way of phrasing the “not enough money” message we’ve been hearing about for the past five years, that further reiterate the messages of budget concerns I hear on weekly conference calls at work. Deciding, however, to become a little more informed, I found this Washington Post article to express “the fiscal cliff for dummies” (my words, not theirs). For those who can resonate with not quite understanding this issue, here’s a few main points:

The 2001 Bush-era tax cuts are set to expire on December 31, causing, among other factors, congress to discuss taxes increases/decreases and budget cuts. Congress has set a limit on how much money the U.S. can borrow, therefore, a deal must be reached.

Half of the scheduled annual cuts will come directly from the national defense budget, half from non-defense.

Social Security, Medicaid, supplemental security income, refundable tax credits, the children’s health insurance program, the food stamp program and veterans’ benefits will not be cut.

Discretionary programs (those that do not have earmarked funds) could face cuts. This includes educational and public health programs, to name a couple.

The Tax Policy Center has calculated that the fiscal cliff will raise taxes on 90 percent of Americans.

The tax hike would be largely progressive, with the tax rate increasing more on high-income Americans than lower-income taxpayers.

Those are a few highlights. There’s still a lot over my head. But that’s enough for me right now. I took a break from public radio this week— even though I enjoy listening to all the unique highlights and interviews I wouldn’t hear elsewhere— because somehow, whenever I’d leave for work in the morning, and whenever I’d leave in the evening, I always seemed to catch the headline news update. And most headline news reports this week have felt dismal. Parking my car after work this week and hearing words like “fiscal cliff” and “economy” swirling around my brain began to dull my ability to enjoy the blissful Christmas lights adorning the homes and entryways of my neighbors. So I decided to take a “media fast.”

A day into this “fast,” I went to Baltimore’s annual Monument tree lighting celebration, in which the city comes together for the lighting of Baltimore’s Washington Monument. Strolling the streets after the lighting and celebratory fireworks, I came across a quartet of women singing, “We Need a Little Christmas,” right there, on the sidewalk, taking a moment out of their evening to stop what they would have otherwise been doing, slow down, and simple sing a song of joy. A multi-racial crowd gathered around, cheering on the carolers, lauding them with applause. I listened to an older man with a broad smile tell me his about his favorite Christmas song -Oh Holy Night- and the joy that singing brings him. As we waved goodbye, tears warmed in my eyes, a little lump forming in my throat. I’m not normally this sensitive, but it’s just that this peaceful act of beauty has been missing from the news, often times, and, while I’m at it, missing in my life. Like when I complain about how long the grocery store line is instead of striking up a conversation with the man or woman in front of me, grateful to have an abundance of food to choose from and the ability to pay for it. It’s been missing from the world, as we shift our attention towards banter and money and taxes, when really, can’t this whole thing work itself out if we’d all just be a little more peaceful, a little more civil, be a little bit more willing to listen, and be a little bit more willing to cooperate cohesively as citizens of the United States of America? What would happen if, say, we shifted towards the spirit of unity that can so embody this time of year, a time in which every major world religion has a holy day to celebrate, or just finished celebrating a month earlier, as in the cases of the Hindu holiday Diwali and the Islamic New Year.

I think that’s what was captured in the gathering of people surrounding this beautiful quartet. Coming together, instead of dividing; finding hope, instead of despair; giving out of a loving heart instead of hoarding our riches to bless ourselves… isn’t that in the teachings of most major religions, anyway?

Interestingly enough, “We Need a Little Christmas” was sung in the Broadway musical Mame. The song is performed after Mame has lost her fortune in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and decides that she, her young nephew Patrick, and her two household servants “need a little Christmas now” to cheer them up. Patrick protests, “but Auntie, it’s one week from Thanksgiving now!” Intransigent, Mame insists, “It’s time we hung some tinsel on that evergreen bough. For I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder, grown a little sadder, grown a little older, and I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder. I need a little Christmas now.” I think Mame knew something powerful: the joy of this season can bring hope even in the midst of despair, like in the Great Depression Mame faced.

Though a fictitious story, the lesson that Mame teaches us in the mantra of “We Need a Little Christmas” parallels to times today. No matter how pollyanna or naive it seems, we too can experience peace and joy in the midst of daunting or disheartening headlines that reflect anything but the Christmas spirit. And maybe, if we could focus on things to be joyful about, like stories of kindness and cheer in the media this month, a little bit more than we’ve done during the other months of this year, perhaps that spirit of kindness will help us become united as one this holiday season. As the saying goes, “Let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.” For me, as someone who is guilty of taking life too seriously as I all too frequently rush around with my own agenda, only half-heartedly listening to the world and those around me, learning how to express gratitude and gratefulness in the midst of my selfishness and apprehensions. What about you? What about us? What if this holiday season, we learn that we are truly brothers and sisters, neighbors to love? Let’s reflect this spirit  in anyway we can; you use your gift, I’ll use mine. Perhaps your gift is being able to spread a smile across someone’s face as they gather around neighbors-becoming-friends as they hear you sing mellifluously of hope and joy. Perhaps it’s inviting some friends over for no reason at all other than to be together, celebrating the life we’ve each been given. Perhaps it’s gathering your family together and choosing an animal for a family halfway across the world to use as a source of income. Whatever it looks like, it looks like love, it looks like togetherness, and to me, it epitomizes the true spirit of Christmas. Yes,—-

For we need a little music,
Need a little laughter,
Need a little singing
Ringing through the rafter,
And we need a little snappy
“Happy ever after,”
Need a little Christmas now.

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