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Season of love and charity

Merry Christmas today, and happy holidays to those who observe other winter celebrations.

In this season when Americans exchange gifts, express gratitude, and reach out to both loved ones and the less fortunate, it's appropriate to reflect on the gifts we've already received as Americans, living in this time in history, in the place in the world, thanks to the efforts of others.

Unlike billions of people elsewhere, we live in a country where we are free to speak our minds, with almost no risk of death or government persecution. We have the right to select those who govern us, and to petition our government for the redress of grievances. And from tea partyers to Occupy movements across the country, people haven't been shy about making their grievances known. (True, the more money you have, the more clout you have in getting grievances redressed, but it could be a lot worse.)

Most times, in most places, the air is healthy to breathe, and almost everybody has ready access to clean drinking water. Modern sanitation keeps disease at bay. Children go to school instead of working in fields or sweatshops.

While too many people go hungry at times, famine is unknown and food aid prevents people from starving. Medical care is widely, but not universally available, and those with means can get the best the world offers.

Unlike many countries, almost every corner of America where people live is reachable by modern communications and transportation. We have an economy where millions of workers toil using their brains, not their brawn, and most people enjoy creature comforts that were fanciful dreams just a century ago.

If you were born in America, you won a lottery of sorts compared with billions of others around the globe.

And yet, opportunity in America today is not what it should be, thanks to the grim economy. Millions have been thrown out of work and are unable to find new jobs because employers have little reason to start hiring.

This time of year, it's impossible not to notice the huge and growing disparity of wealth in the country. Inequality has hit the highest levels since the 1920s, the time that preceded the Great Depression.

Are these disparities the natural order of things, the result of a fair economic process, open equally to all, and the free choices individuals make? Or do they also reflect arbitrary elements that have little to do with an individual's talent and effort — good or bad luck, family advantages or disadvantages, political connections? One need only look at the homeless mentally ill people easily found in any major American city and think, "There but for the grace of God go I."

No matter how well-off an American is, the quality of today's life depends on what millions of others have done to help make it possible. Some died to defend our freedom; others built the roads, and planes and telecommunications a modern economy needs, while others helped by offering an education, protecting public safety, or delivering needed health. In a society as complex and interconnected as ours, no man (or woman) is an island.

The holiday season is a time many reflect on our place in the world and the advantages we enjoy. Perhaps those reflections can bring some humility to our political and social debates about what kind of society we have and how to make it better. May the season's spirit of love and charity carry all the way through the New Year.