On the first day of winter all the cars arrived in the parking lot at work led by the glare from their headlights. Engines, idling for warmth, leaked plumes of exhaust that spun themselves out into the cold wind while we waited for the sun to rise and the day to begin. My solitary overhead light was the only one in the rows of rumbling vehicles as I sat with my notebook on my knees, to write, to read, to reflect.

It was the last Monday before Christmas and I still had shopping to do. I admit that I’m pretty terrible at the whole holiday thing, a helpless procrastinator. I almost dread its coming. It seems that I never know what to get anyone and usually end up wandering store aisles at the last minute — right up to Christmas eve — looking for that perfect gift though I haven’t a clue what it might be. Two days before Christmas I stopped at Renys in Camden after work and wandered through a crowd of last minute shoppers, some with that recognizable look of desperation as they searched for that last minute gift or anything at all to stuff in a stocking. I have to say I actually felt a certain comfort being among those captives of Christmas present milling through the aisles as though they expected the gift of a lifetime to leap off the store shelf and land in their hands. I was in the land of the lost and relieved not to be alone.

Yet somehow, the season always wins. Despite it all, I always manage to “muddle through somehow.” Every year, it seems, I have to learn that the holiday is not just about me, struggling to fulfill my role, but about a natural coming together of family and friends, a product of many parts producing a whole greater than ourselves. Christmas, it seems, has its own momentum and I always get carried along, ready or not. If the magic of Christmas is anything for me, it’s that for all my difficulty with the season, and for all the Christmases I’ve seen, I have no memories but good ones, even some great ones, all in spite of myself.

But beyond the lights and warmth of Christmas is another matter indeed. New Year’s is something I always feel the need to make sense of before passing on. Perhaps I am not alone in feeling it is a time, not just of celebration, but of deep reflection. It’s a time to pause, to slow down in the blur of day-to-day life and ask ourselves some all important questions, or to paraphrase French artist Paul Gauguin (and Ronald Wright), “Where have we been? What have we become? Where is it all heading?

It was with this coming meditation in mind that I wrote an e-mail to an old friend some weeks ago expressing dismay at the current political situation and the infighting over the health care reform bill. I must have sounded especially disillusioned.

Politicians have become blatantly insensitive to the needs of people, I complained. They’re only out for what they can get for themselves or to keep themselves safely in power. The concentration of wealth, and power, that began under Reagan has reached its completion. Rome hasn’t fallen yet, but the republic just may have. The system, I felt, was broken.

Accustomed to my histrionics she came back, as she usually does, with a kind of a solution, one more personal than general. She sent me an excerpt from an article on the Jewish philosophy of Tikkum Olam, which states that we each make a difference and we can heal the world. Quite simply no matter what ruin men have made of things Tikkum Olam says that every act of loving kindness, no matter how great or small, repairs the world, from giving blood to dumping our change in the Salvation Army collection pot. Service is the work of the soul. It all counts and each act is a beginning.

“We won’t fix the world,” she replied. “It will always be broken, I think. Maybe all we can do is stake out a corner and fix that? Perhaps that’s too poor, too small, an approach, but it’s all I know to do.”

No one of us is going to change the world alone, or cure it of all its ills. It must and will be a collective work as are almost all great movements of human progress. If service is truly the work of the soul then the greatest service is to join in, to begin, and to start where we each begin. Perhaps like Christmas, it will carry us all along, ready or not.

Ronald M. Horvath lives in Camden.