NEW YORK — Ah, at last, Christmas Eve. In just a few hectic hours, long lines of holiday travelers will clear from the airports, cash registers will ring up their last Christmas sales, and crowded malls will empty out their last-minute shoppers.
Then, a hush will descend on America. And when it does, the spirit of Christmas, that amazing phenomenon that transcends religion, will embrace us all in its warmth - regardless of our beliefs.
The spirit of Christmas also beckons us to wish good will to all mankind, including those who suffer and hunger, and those beyond our hearing who grieve, scarred by the brutalities of war.
This Christmas, even as battles rage in Iraq, will we Americans heed the call to honor the humanity we share with all the peoples of Earth, to recognize that fear and pain feel the same the world round, that each life lost - no matter the nationality - was once a child loved?
Who better than we Americans to show empathy for the plight of others less fortunate, when we are the most fortunate people history has known? We live in abundance in relation to most of mankind. We have greater resources with which to make more things that make our lives more comfortable, and more money with which to buy more things.
Perhaps most important, as we prepare to celebrate the second Christmas since the US invasion of Iraq, the vast majority of us live lives untouched by war. Most of us cannot fathom losing a loved one - soldier or civilian - to a grenade.
We are indeed privileged. All the more reason, then, for us not to forget those who suffer in quiet anguish, regardless of the language they speak, the God they worship, or the rules they live by.
After all, if we listen closely to our hearts, the dead and wounded we see daily pictured on the battle-ravaged streets of Iraq - or anywhere else in the world for that matter - speak with equal intensity, American or not. Behind each is the cry of a mother or a father - sister, brother, or spouse - whose dreams have been crushed, whose love knows no borders or nationality.
Understandably, some readers who care about the world, in order to navigate their daily lives, maintain a distance, a self-protective indifference to the suffering of others captured in the news. Some may be convinced that wartime violence is necessary; that collateral damage just goes along with that.
For many other Americans though, it is no longer possible to remain impervious to the grief on all sides. Yet, unable to turn away from the photographed wail of an Iraqi mother whose child has been destroyed by an errant "smart" bomb, they feel impotent to make a difference; to make whole the Iraqi father whose heart aches as he mourns his child, shot down when orders were issued to "shoot anything that moves"; to bring back to a New Jersey mother her 19-year-old son killed while serving in Iraq to earn money to attend college.
There is, however, one thing we - no matter what our politics - can, and indeed must do, for ourselves and for the unknowable numbers hurt by war we wage. We must maintain an ongoing awareness of the common humanity that binds us all, even when it is uncomfortable, even when the child lost is one of the "bad guys" and it is deemed unpatriotic to feel empathy for the parents of "our enemies."
The beauty of such vigilant awareness of others' suffering is that it demands so little sacrifice on our part. All that is required is a willingness to see above and beyond the convenient labels of "us" and "them," and a striving to remember that each and every one of us is a beloved seed of creation.
Strip away the nouns "American" and "Iraqi," "liberator" and "resister," and we each at our core are the children of parents who have loved and nurtured us.
We can embrace America and simultaneously refuse to sacrifice our sense of shared humanity. We are challenged to exercise our right to feel compassion and our right to experience empathy for those who ache as much as we would, were we in their shoes. Because if we forfeit our ability to see our common humanity, then anything - no matter how horrendous - becomes acceptable.
It is our unique privilege as humans to feel empathy. Let us guard that privilege. And let us, this Christmas season, listen especially closely for the call for compassion that can be heard in the stillness of the night.
• Gretchen Van Deusen is an attorney and freelance writer.