I wrote down the following thoughts almost a year ago during my devotional reading of Ecclesiastes 4:4-8, focusing specifically on verse 8: “There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. ‘For whom am I toiling,’ he asked, ‘and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?’ This too is meaningless–a miserable business!” (New International Version).
Since it’s nearly Christmas, and I love Charles Dickens, verse 8 made me think of Ebenezer Scrooge, toiling alone for no purpose other than acquisition itself, with nobody to inherit his accumulation because he has no significant relationships, having driven everybody away in his single-minded pursuit. We make Scrooge seem preposterous when we exaggerate his hatred of Christmas and quote his most hyperbolic lines, but there are actually many people in our society who are just like him, and I have to admit that I tend in that direction. Our motives may be mixed: we are striving for money, yes, but maybe also for promotion and to gain respect, and maybe just because we’re addicted to work. The lonely toiler in verse 8 actually stops to ask why he’s doing all this, but so many of us don’t. Solomon diagnoses this behavior perfectly: “This also is vanity and a grave misfortune” (New King James Version). Scrooge’s main lesson was not about loving Christmas but about loving people and putting them above money and work. This Christmas season, I could stand to learn this lesson too.
As I revisit these thoughts this year, I would like to remind myself and all of us that there are people who are lonely at Christmas not because they’ve run all their relationships into the ground in an obsession with work, but maybe because they don’t have close family members and friends with whom they feel comfortable celebrating. Maybe they’ve been rejected by the people who should be most accepting of them, or maybe it just seems like everyone they’ve loved over the long years of their lives has died. Or maybe it’s just that one significant other who passed away earlier this year and left an unfillable hole in the Christmas celebration, regardless of however many other loved ones are still around. There are people who are lonely at Christmas because they’ve chosen to devote their lives to overseas missions work or to study in another country.
I know it’s a common trope of Christmas songs and movies to gesture toward the existence of loneliness at Christmas, but these stories too often have neat, easy endings–Santa Claus or Little Cindy Lou Who arrives and solves the problem, cathartically absolving us (the audience) of any need to make a real-life response to what we’ve seen. This year, I’m taking the simple step of praying for people who I know or suspect are feeling lonely during this season. I’m also trying to do little things like connecting two people in my department at work who are going to be in the office during the week leading up to Christmas, when most of us won’t be around–maybe they can have lunch together one day. Perhaps one day I’ll have the opportunity to include someone in my family’s Christmas festivities who has nobody else to celebrate with. We’re talking about hospitality here, really, and hospitality isn’t just one type of action–it’s a posture of openness toward other people and a sensitivity to God’s leading.
Of course, at the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s own isolation is driven away by his choice to show hospitality to others. In the end, it doesn’t matter why someone is lonely–whether it be poverty, death of a loved one, or an unhealthy focus on money and work. The important thing is that one person chooses to reach out of his or her loneliness into someone else’s. Will you try doing that this Christmas?