My sister and her husband recently brought me a book from a famous bookstore in Paris, the place American writers — Hemingway and Fitzgerald, among many others — used as a sort of headquarters as they were beginning their writing careers. I loved the book, but better still was the paper bag it came in. In large, square letters on the side was a quote from Voltaire that read: “Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world.”
I liked the quote so much that I cut it off the side of the bookstore bag and framed it.
In this holiday season of joy, I am reminded of Voltaire’s wisdom: Reading gives us enlightenment, pleasure and entertainment — three things that surely bring us joy. And dancing … don’t we all know the pure joy of letting go and moving to music? We dance at weddings, in end zones, romantically with partners or when we sneak in an exuberant, impromptu dance at home when nobody is looking.
During the holidays, the concept of joy is omnipresent: in religious connotations, in the happiness of being with people we love, in giving and receiving gifts and in performing kind and generous acts. We acknowledge the adage that we hear every year this time — that we should incorporate the joy and benevolence of the holidays into all 12 months. In the shaky world in which we live today, this has never been more important.
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Voltaire tells us that reading and dancing “will never do any harm to the world.” We need not only to contemplate those things that will do no harm but also to consider how to mediate those forces that subtly discourage us from compassion and respect for our fellow man.
Poet and novelist Maya Angelou counseled that “The thing to do, it seems to me, is to prepare yourself so you can be the rainbow to somebody else’s cloud. Somebody who may not look like you. Somebody who may not call God the same name you call God.… Somebody who may not dance your dances or speak your language. But be a blessing to somebody.”
We see people embodying Angelou’s ideas across the country and here at home. Columbia is a benevolent city; institutions, non-profit organizations, churches and synagogues, city and county service agencies set high standards for assisting their fellow man during the holidays and throughout the year. Recipients such as Epworth Children’s Home provide perfect illustrations of our generosity — not only in gifts provided during this season, but in the volunteering of time and support all year long for Epworth’s programs and services for abused and neglected children. Dozens of other organizations receive this same kind of assistance — and love — from individuals and agencies in our community.
On the national level, natural disasters, as well as the daily struggles some of our fellow citizens face, have been the proving ground for our assistance and charity. Examples of American generosity are amazing, and are symbolic of our basic good will. Less tangible events are testing our country’s benevolent mettle somewhat differently: shadows of prejudice, negativity and disregard for others that have crept into our national leadership are being repudiated by increasing numbers of citizens. We recognize the need to demonstrate that we are not a small-minded, fearful people, but instead are a generous, fair and inclusive society.
My dad was a lifelong fan of Louis Armstrong, and as he grew older, he came to love Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” The song is sentimental, but the message is certainly perfect for our time. The lyrics describe a world filled with people “shaking hands, saying how do you do,” expressing the simple beauty of unity. This song makes me happy, not only because it conjures up memories of my dad, but also because it outlines clearly what we all want this season: a reason to be hopeful and, most of all, a time in which we find real joy.
Ms. Beasley is an Columbia educator; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.