As a society, are we more angry today than yesterday? It sure feels that way — from newspaper headlines and social media posts, to television where, crammed in between the pharmaceutical commercials, there is a lot of bad news. Why all the negative content? It’s there because we are wired to look for it.
Studies support our impulse to see bad news first. Research attributes this to a small area in our brain called the amygdala. This danger detector culls through sensory input like a super computer looking for potential threats, dismissing the good and keeping the bad stuff in front of us. It’s our fight or flight impulse, and we pay attention to it.
In addition to science, there may be something else at work here — boredom. As sentient beings we need to think, learn and create to be happy. This requires a desire and the time to focus on the task at hand. Once satisfied, our mood — in return — typically blooms into a smile. Yet on today’s menu we are apt to dine on cheaper, quicker, and faster fare, and on more of everything. This temporarily excites but in the process sucks time from our lives. The bloom dies leaving boredom in its wake.
With the holidays here, I know our global mood will change momentarily and some good will be brought to the game. Now there is plenty of goodness around; it just feels misplaced or inextricably lost at the present, at least to me. Why can’t we bottle up that holiday cheer and have it dispensed throughout the year?
No matter one’s religious beliefs, this time of year usually feels good. We are closer to family, to one another, even strangers. No sooner has the Halloween candy been eaten then it’s time to make room for Thanksgiving. And it’s all good — good food, good will, all in the company of family. And then Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa arrive, each providing a distinct path of light to doorsteps all over the world, bringing joy and glad tidings for all. Why can’t it be like this all of the time?
Last evening I mused on that Charlie Brown holiday classic. Those familiar characters will again be here to remind us of the season and of our own childhood. It will tug at parents’ heartstrings when they look to their children and reminisce about their own celebrations when they were young, knowing things are different today.
I think everyone’s favorite part — excluding Lucy, that lovable narcissistic spring-loaded queen of the one-liners — is when Charlie Brown, frustrated, disappointed, perhaps even angry, cries out, “Isn’t there anybody who knows what Christmas is all about!?”
There is someone who knows. Linus, that lovable child — with his blanket always in tow— walks to the center of the stage, asks for “light, please” and tells everyone the true meaning of Christmas. He ends by saying, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly hosts, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on Earth peace, good will toward men.’ That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
Remembering this, I now realize Linus is all of us — in a sense — when we were children. It was when times felt better because we believed they were the best; when parents were always there, and when they weren’t we didn’t care because we were outside playing from sunup to sundown.
Newspapers were on the doorstep and sometimes milk in bottles, too; presents were less, outside lights were big and in color on every house, and a tree without tinsel was sacrosanct — at least in the neighborhood in which I grew up. These times not only felt good, they were good. People were more civil, family time abundant and boredom an orphan, because we took the time for ourselves.
Today we live feeling nervous about what tomorrow might bring all while barraged by bad news. We can’t go back and relive those days of bliss, but we can keep the words, “goodwill toward men” always close by. Perhaps we keep them in the next room close to the fireplace or tucked in for the night where childhood memories wait for the next time they are needed. Maybe we keep them in our shirt pocket next to our heart. We then become better, because we are better for it.
All of this holiday talk has now made me dizzy. I am as giddy as a schoolboy and as light as a feather; I may even float away. But I won’t. I am grounded, much as we all are in our day-by-day lives. And with that said, I do wish — and most fervently believe — we all can cast off the uneasy times, flick the chip of anger off our shoulder, shirk those chains we forged and replace them with goodwill and glad tidings — not just one day of the year but in all the days that follow.
RJ Heller, BDN Down East contributor
RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.