I have forgotten where, but in something he had written George Orwell named the virtue he admired most. He lived frugally and was often very poor. He spent much of his adult life with the working class. He liked their grit, their cheerfulness in adversity and more than anything else, their decency. They were loyal to their friends, took care of their families, worked hard, took delight in small pleasures, and showed good manners toward most others. They lived believing in the person in front of them, not a political idea about the person. They believed in the particulars of character, not in the grandiosity of theory, nor in any fashionable précis of a human being. Their lives gave him hope about humanity as a whole in the nastiest decades of the 20th century when whole countries seemed to be happily marching into the night.
In his evaluation of the men and women he knew best, I would like to think that Orwell was doing a kind of a shorthand of blessings. Never a preacher, maybe he was offering a circuitous piece of advice about what we should include among the enduring virtues we should strive towards – cultivate a sunny stoicism, maintain good manners, give each one you meet a chance or maybe two, help someone out, even if it costs you something in return.
In a mass we can be pretty savage — in nation-states and leviathan corporations, but as individuals, counted one by one, my lucky experience in life encourages hope, the best Christmas present I think. In all the thousands of high school kids I came to know well over all those years, very few were bereft of that common decency Orwell held dear; my experience cannot be unique. My memory of them, my daily encounters now, the stories of sacrifice and valor I come across every day – we have much to ease our hearts if we will only look. It is a hard world, but we can see much that will give us hope in the daily kindnesses that endure. So … thanks to Mr. Orwell, and Merry Christmas to all who read this, and may your season be one where hope arrives at your door, a shy creature, and when you swing it wide, a smile on your face, hope embraces you and promises to stay for a while.