Records are meant to be broken, but promises are supposed to last forever. In our current landscape, that expectation seems laughably naïve. From the highest office to the smallest fry, we daily hear proclamations that are worth less than the air that carries them into our auditory canals. The fundamental premise of our society is the exchange of mutual, beneficial promises in an environment that honors their sanctity. The very core of this idea is crumbling. But, like a gingerbread house patched up with frosting, the holiday season affords the ability to reinforce our foundation.
The period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s is marked with a noticeable uptick in benevolence, self-reflection, and the difficult farce inherent in pretending to be nice instead of naughty. It is a season in which the promises of our species are revealed, when we can see hope for what we can achieve, what we can repair. Goodwill toward personkind abounds, random acts of kindness become almost predictable, the warmth of humanity gets us through the cold nights. We make promises to ourselves and to others, to continue the spirit of the holidays into the new year.
But the year is long and we are human. We need something more than the holiday spirit to keep us in line until next November. Unable to rely upon the promises made to us, we are forced to turn to the civil legal system to enforce our expectations of others. Those promises may be contained in contractual provisions or may be spoken aloud or written on a napkin or implied from conduct. In theory, the law posits any of these as inviolable. This is a nice intention and it would be killer to be able to believe in it. Of course, the practicalities of promise enforcement exonerate wrongdoers on a fairly regular basis, either by twisting the bounds of reality or by making the process so unwieldy as to make the enforcer exhausted, broke, and just plain frustrated.
It is disappointing, perhaps devastating, that we can glimpse a higher plane of existence, but can never seem to live up to those lofty ideals. With each promise broken without consequence, our confidence in the entire system vanishes as quickly as the steam rising from a cup of hot cocoa. Soon, we will be left with only the merest of dregs, that last lukewarm sip of watery chocolate.
I’m more of a cider guy myself, so I’m not willing to wait until we reach the bottom of our mug. A promise must mean something. The people to whom we used to look for guidance have failed us as exemplars. Our cues must come from within, from the force that made our civilization great, from the power of banding together to do better, to be great, to be happy. We know what it looks like: twinkling lights and flickering candles and softly falling snow. We know what it smells like: conifers and latkes and wax and mulled wine. Our task is to take those affirming days and stretch them into an extra 330.
The lessons of the holiday period are usually retained for about the same length as the promise of sober January. Promise me that we will not let that happen.