WTMA commentary broadcast 12/21/07

For Americans, Christmas can mean many things. Obviously, the birth of Christ is the central message and original purpose of the holiday. For children, nothing is more exciting than a visit from Santa Claus and the gifts that follow. And for most, Christmas is a time to visit with and reconnect with friends and family, some of whom we only get to see during the holidays due to our hectic schedules and our busy lives.

For all the advantages technology brings us, we sometimes forget just how much technical progress has distorted our lives and how much it has altered the way we live. Whereas our ancestors’ lives were centered on their immediate family, their extended family and the communities in which they put down roots, we modern folks are much more likely to base our identity on the television shows we watch or what kind of car we drive. While our ancestors might have measured their life’s success by the children they produced, today we are more inclined to measure self-worth by being able to afford the latest gadget, with which we can text or email relatives we never get to see.

The disruptive effect of technology isn’t merely relegated to the computer age. Henry Ford, who made it possible for a broader section of the middle class to buy an automobile with his famous Model T, became depressed later in life with how much he had contributed to the break-up of the old patterns of family and community by making automobiles more accessible. Russell Kirk, author of the groundbreaking book “The Conservative Mind” in 1953, considered automobiles, as well as trains and airplanes, destructive, revolutionary forces that had done more damage to American family and community life than good. Kirk was also not a big fan of television, which he called “demon TV” for what the invention had done to family life, noting that before TV most people’s living rooms featured chairs facing each other where people would talk over tea or a smoke. But in the television age, living room chairs all faced in one direction – toward a small, animated box that did all the talking.

Now I’m sure by now many of you are rolling your eyes and rightfully so. Like you, I couldn’t imagine life without the many technologies that aid me throughout the day – whether it’s my car that gets me to work, the computer that allows me to work, or the cell phone that allows me to call home when I might be late for work. I couldn’t live without my TV, from which I get so much news and information.

But while it might be true that we can’t turn back the clock, it is worth noticing how much modern life speeds up the clock, where we get so ahead of ourselves that we actually ignore the things that should come first – namely our connection to other human beings, particularly family and friends.

Which brings us back to Christmas. The Christmas holiday is a day on which we are forced to take a break from the modern world to comply with the old-fashioned value of family obligation. For our ancestors, who had no cars, trains or airplanes to take them to far away places, who had no telephones or televisions to show them another world outside their own, Christmas was probably just another day of seeing the same old people, with a bigger meal and maybe a few presents if they were lucky. For many if not most us today, Christmas is a day we see friends and relatives we never really get to see. I’m not saying our ancestors had it better and we have it worse, as obviously we benefit enormously from so many advancements. I’m just saying that the “good old days” of our fathers and grandfathers might truly have been better than we modern folks realize, and Christmas is the one day each year where we might be reminded of this, undistracted.