“The Little Match Girl” is a classic and deeply poignant story by Hans Christian Anderson that touches the heartstrings of all who read it. Whether written simply as a story or as a commanding statement of social justice, Anderson pulls us into a narrative that demands attention from even the most jaded souls among us.
It is a bitter cold New Year’s Eve. A little girl, shabbily dressed, attempts to sell matches to people bustling past her, ignoring her desperate plight. One by one she strikes her matches, seeking to find some tiny bit of warmth from them. As she lights her last match, she sees a vision of a loving grandmother, coming to take her to a better place. Rejected in life, those who find her still and frozen body the next morning take pity and carry her to a proper place of rest.
Although this story comes from the pages of a time long passed when children were often cruelly misused and severely neglected, the lesson it contains is as relevant today as it was then.
Children in America still die because they have no warm shelter from winter’s chill. They die from hunger in a land where enough food is wasted each day to feed them all. They die because health care, so advanced and so precise, carries a price tag that shuts them out. They die because the circumstances of their birth often place them in the middle of danger and horrific scenes of violence.
And, like the Little Match Girl, they are very often ignored while they live, only to evoke remorse and pity when they die.
Oddly enough, that “ignoring” has given rise to a new term on the landscape of our national dialogue.
They, who struggle to survive, whose families work long hours, live on marginal incomes, delay medical care to save money, eat the wrong foods because they cannot afford better, live in sub-standard or no housing at all and still dream of a better life, have a new title.
They are the “takers.”
They count as their members the mentally ill, the angry and hopeless, the single parent, the learning disabled and developmentally delayed child, the overweight and underfed, the school dropout and the youth without a compass who follow a path into the dark and dangerous alleys of life.
Their new “scarlet letter” casts them as moochers, lazy, worthy of disdain and living off the efforts of those enlightened ones among us who are the real providers and caretakers of society. Although this may seem an extreme comparison, there are far too many today who want to believe it to be true. Shaped and reinforced by an ideology that tends to separate rather than include, their minds embrace fear rather than hope and perpetuate myths instead of truth.
Sadly, at this season of more open hearts, I fear there will be many who pass by the little match children in our lives, failing even to offer them a tiny flame of warmth, feeling only regret when the last light has gone out.