Mean. Meanly. Meanness.
The root word can cut two ways: lowly, poor, perhaps even oppressed, as in mean circumstances; low-minded, tight-fisted, even nasty, as in mean-spirited.

Mean. Meanly. Meanness.

The root word can cut two ways: lowly, poor, perhaps even oppressed, as in mean circumstances; low-minded, tight-fisted, even nasty, as in mean-spirited.

Christmas is a season that can bring out both. In our giving and receiving, do we not calculate? As we approach giving, do we not remember what we were given (or not given) the year before? As we approach receiving, do we not anticipate a gift at least the equal of the year before?

We measure our generosity and our expectations.

Many of us, after all, were brought up with middle class values, such as thrift, working for the pennies we earn, saving some, paying a fair wage for the work done, and charity where it is genuinely needed.

So in this season when we are urged to open our pocketbooks and our hearts, is it surprising that we calculate?

How many who still send Christmas cards keep a record of who sent cards to them? My Excel database goes back ten years.

Mean. Meanly. Meanness. I suppose the contrary connotations of the root word may have to do with the sense that people brought up in mean circumstances are likely to turn out to be grasping and self-centered as adults. Although many would argue that it is the poor who give a greater portion of their substance to others, it is certainly true that early deprivation can lead to an excessive desire to accumulate and hoard.

Consider all the stuff left in closets, attics, and garages by our parents or grandparents who survived the Great Depression. As my father-in-law used to say, “We might have a use for it some day.”

Undoubtedly, too, meanness generates meanness. Just as the habits of poverty can impoverish the future for the children, so can a poverty of spirit lead to the grasping hand and a hard heart.

Not just eventually either. Does not our outrage at some injustice done to us lead to a desire to avenge? Oh, we won’t call it revenge; we are simply balancing one injustice with another injustice, thus creating justice.

So we tell ourselves.

Several decades ago, my wife and I were selling our first house. It was a hard market and we had had to back out of one purchase because we hadn’t sold. Finally, we had an offer, communicated from a realtor to our realtor to us.

We were given to understand that the offer was firm, $10,000 below what I thought was our modest asking price. Further, the couple would not negotiate. Take it or leave it. We didn’t like the tone, but it was an offer from folks with cash in hand. So we took it.

I have come to appreciate realtors, by the way, since whether buyer and seller like each other shouldn’t muddy such negotiations.

Unfortunately, it didn’t end with an offer accepted. We were scheduled to move to our second house about a week before Christmas. But the folks we were purchasing from asked us if we could delay, so they could celebrate Christmas one last time in a house they had occupied for over 20 years. Without thinking, I said, “Of course.”

It was Christmas, after all.

As it turned out, our buyers came for a walk-through the next day. As I remember, the wife was asking couldn’t we leave this or that for them—such things as appliances, shelving, fire wood, the television antenna. Yes, of course.

While his wife was in a different room, I explained to the husband what I had promised to the folks whose house we were buying; could we stay an extra week in this house, so we wouldn’t have to move twice?

After pausing a minute, he agreed.

I should have read more into that pause. Two days later, his wife called their realtor who called our realtor who called us. What we heard seemed unvarnished meanness: Could we do this? Wasn’t that a violation of the contract? We must leave the house when originally scheduled or they would pull out of the contract!

We had no choice. We certainly weren’t going to deliver the same hard-hearted message to the folks we were buying from. Luckily, we had a place to store everything, friends to help us move twice, and, best of all, friends who offered us the use of their house with its Christmas tree while they visited their adult children.

But I had been infected by the woman’s lack of generosity, which I perceived—perhaps mistakenly—as meanness. So I told a friend he could pick up the woodpile and I removed the pole and Radio Shack antenna I had installed on the chimney.

We moved out and, after the final inspection, they moved in. A day or so later, the woman called her realtor who called our realtor who called me. “Tell him [that’s me] to put that antenna back up immediately!” Our realtor was alert enough to inform her realtor (to inform her) that since she hadn’t raised the issue during their final inspection of the house, I was under no obligation to reinstall the antenna.

Thus was one violated oral agreement repaid by another violated oral agreement, one meanness balanced by another. Thus lowered, I imagined I had created justice.

As it turned out, I gave the antenna away to a friend, because we had decided to sign up for cable. But that act of generosity certainly didn’t erase my own acts of meanness from my memory. They arise every Christmas season.

They join with a sense of America today, with name-calling and personal attacks flowing from the top down. Yet among people I know and people I don’t know, I witness generosity and acts of kindness. I want to be worthy of such people.

Christ was born in mean circumstances, but he gave his very life for all of us.

Let us exchange meanness for a bit of humility and good will toward our neighbors.

Our society needs it.

Bill Hagen is a retired OBU professor. He lives in Shawnee with his cat. Contact him at