A Christmas story from an associate, who was in a Salvation Army op shop when a family - mum, dad, and three children - stopped by to drop off a new bike.

My associate was still there when a little boy spotted the bike. He couldn't take his eyes off it, and lingered there, touching the bike, and patting the seat longingly.

"Do you like that?" asked the man behind the counter. The boy looked up at him, but didn't say anything. I'd better talk to your mother then, said the man. And then he gave her the bike.

Everyone in the shop just stood around in tears.


Thank God for Christmas.

Not just because of the enforced break and the time with family, for which I'm grateful.

But because, despite the commercialisation of Christmas and the beguilements of our materialistic culture, Christmas still represents hopes and values most of us aspire to.

Last year, in one of the best Christmas speeches I've heard from a politician in recent times, the Green Party leader Russel Norman, an atheist, described Christmas as "the start of new hope".

Norman said the story of the brief life of Jesus Christ still resonates with many of us, and is the reason "Christmas is still such an enduring part of our culture".

"The hopes and values Jesus Christ articulated during the course of his short life are too important to belong only to Christians," said Norman. "Those values inspired some of the world's first hospitals, orphanages, universities, and reforms to the way we treat those who've broken the law."

They "challenged the status quo on slavery in Great Britain and moved Martin Luther King to march for equal rights for African Americans".

And they inspired Michael Joseph Savage's "attempt to offer cradle-to-grave security from poverty and despair". Savage described his welfare policies as "applied Christianity".


But those values, of love, generosity, and a reverence for nature, Norman said, had been undermined in the pursuit of economic growth.

Parliament was dominated "by a different kind of worship - one of economic growth, at all costs".

We can hope at Christmas.

According to the Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Tony Kushner, hope is a moral obligation.

Cynicism is easy - our culture encourages it, revels in it. But it surrenders the future to the powerful and comfortable.

It accepts the world as unchangeable - and injustice, poverty, and rising inequality as inevitable.

Hope takes real effort. It requires faith.

One Monday earlier this year, I met with Tongan psychiatrist Dr Siale Foliaki, who had spent that morning seeing the weekend's suicide attempts. He has worked in South Auckland for nearly two decades and has never seen anything like the current suicide rates among Pacific Islanders. I pushed him for reasons. The causes are complex, of course. But the most significant factor, he told me, was loss of hope.

Hopeful people don't kill themselves.

Earlier this year, an Epsom church group asked me to speak to their congregation about child poverty. We're not very pious Christians, one of them told me, which was a relief. The talk was in a Mt Eden pub.

I shared the billing with World Vision chief executive Chris Clark, who had seen up close the kind of Third World poverty that some New Zealanders think of as "real poverty".

Certainly the level of poverty was sobering compared to New Zealand's. But there was an important and surprising difference. Despite what we'd consider desperate material deprivation, there was also a strong sense of community, and dynamism of spirit. They weren't ground down by their poverty. Their kids had big dreams for the future. They were hopeful.

Back home in affluent New Zealand, our children seemed less hopeful, their dreams smaller somehow.

What if governments saw the nurturance of hope in our children as a moral obligation? What if we paid as much attention to raising levels of hope and spirit as we did to economic growth?

In a 1997 paper, the former children's commissioner Ian Hassall drew a link between the "striking social changes" brought about by Rogernomics' demolition of the welfare state and the introduction of the market economy, and an epidemic of depression and suicide among young people since 1985 and subsequently.

The changes, he wrote, "may well have been necessary but in making them, we have to a large degree ignored the need for a sense of place and a secure vision for the future amongst our young people.

"The reality for too many is that they are surplus to an uncaring, competitive society. Many cannot or do not want to participate in a world defined by social status, money, acquisitions."

One might attempt to measure the level of hope and spirit in the community indirectly, as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have done in their book The Spirit Level, by measuring levels of sickness and social pathologies in a society.

Their thesis - that highly unequal societies are sicker and more dysfunctional than more equal ones - is controversial.

But the conversation is limited.

By focusing only on what is measurable, we're in danger of missing a larger truth.