(This is a Christmas centered article. Please substitute whatever ritualistic holiday/family gathering makes sense to you.)
Do you struggle with the holiday season?
I feel conflicted about the commercialism of Christmas.
And I don’t know how many times I’ve gone home for the holidays thinking, this year I’m going to be a zen master of unruffledness, only to find myself crying in the bathroom after three days.
My dreams of starting a career, falling in love and learning to sail were dashed and the nagging melody of disappointment I felt throughout the year became like a 7–part fugue played on a church organ telling me I was a failure.
- “43 Things You Shouldn’t Do in Front Your Boss at Your Office Party“—Not so inspiring when you’re unable to work.
- “5 Intriguing Ways to Deal With Family Members”—Not so intriguing when you’re alone.
- “Have Yourself a Sexy Christmas with These Sexy Gifts“—Not so sexy if your boyfriend dumped you and the only men you’ve spoken to in the past 18 months, aside from your father and doctor, is your 75 year old plumber. Who frankly, is looking pretty good.
If you struggle with the holiday season.
For whatever reason.
This article is my gift to you.
If I could go back and sit on the end of my bed during those years when I was living in my parents basement, feeling dejected and dreaming of the life I thought had been taken from me, here are the five things I’d tell myself:
1. Do it how you want
When I was a kid Christmas was about Santa. It was about a pillow slip of presents on the end of our bed. Even when we were big enough to know better.
It was about ham and chocolate. Strawberries and ice-cream. Asparagus and new potato’s.
I thought my beliefs about the holidays mattered.
When I met my husband, Franco, I was still in my, “I’m not into Christmas phase.” But when I realized that he liked it, I was on board. No question.
Now I love it.
We string popcorn for the tree. We make ornaments out of photos. And Franco sings my favorite Christmas carol over and over.
If the rituals of Christmas seem too painful this year, change it up. Take a road trip. Get a dog. Rent a movie. Or spend the holiday in a caravan at the Mokhihnui camping ground my yourself (2008).
Call family you haven’t seen in ages. Have a skype party. Buy a plane ticket to a tropical island.
Relax. Do what makes sense to you.
It’s not as big a deal as you think.
2. Reality check
The holiday season amplifies life.
If we’re already feeling joyful and happy, “the holidays” can be fun. Buying a tree with your new husband, despite mad LA traffic and unholy queues, is wonderfully pleasant.
But when things aren’t peachy—financial troubles, relationship troubles, or just “jeez I feel miserable” troubles—the holidays can feel like getting your leg jammed between a pleasure cruiser and a jetty, only the captain is too out of it on eggnog and brandy to notice.
But here’s the thing.
It’s about understanding that we’re only disappointed because we think our life isn’t what it should be. As if we’re off schedule. But how do we know what it should be like? Why are we so sure that the imaginary life we’d like to have is the best?
The idea that there is a right track and a wrong track is something we’re taught in school. But life’s not that black and white. Sometimes it’s our fight to stay on “the right track” that causes so many of our problems.
I can’t tell you how hard I tried to be a successful career person. And when I couldn’t? I felt like a royal, embarrassing failure.
But it wasn’t.
It was full of it!
Possibly more so than at any other time. It just didn’t look like I thought it would look like.
Judging things by how they seem in this moment is pointless. We can’t see what’s ahead. We can’t see how this crappy time may hold a gift greater than we’d imagined. We can’t see how our seemingly lousy decisions provide a stage for great courage, compassion, love and learning.
We don’t realize that things are changing on the inside.
We simply can’t see the full picture.
Forget all the noise and the headlines. They’re not real anyway.
Hang on. The ride’s not over yet.
3. The holiday season is a spiritual teacher (but not how you think)
I suspect you like learning as much as I do.
Most of us are supremely motivated to feel better than we already do. Every year human beings spend billions of dollars on self-help material.
We tend to think the best way to achieve this is by doing something: by thinking positively; by not eating junk food; or by finally reading The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying to the end.
We tend to think spirituality is something happy, motivated people do to further themselves.
The truth is, the biggest spiritual lessons happen when we’re not feeling very “sorted.”
And the truly awesome therapeutic beauty of the holidays—that most people forget—is that you can almost guarantee that at least half of the things that push your buttons will show up.
It’s easy to think he’s doing real spiritual work. That he’s stronger than us. We’re only dealing with things like car maintenance, school timetables, making a wage packet stretch and designing this years Halloween costume.
But honestly. When I did my year of silence, it was hard initially. And there were tough moments for sure. But after a while, it’s easy.
There’s no one asking, “And what do you do?” There’s no email from your mother telling you how amazing her friends children are and why can’t you be more like them.
There’s no Facebook.
He’s trying to detach from his thoughts and tap into his inner wisdom. But we’re trying too. Only, instead of sitting in a rock garden we’re waiting at the bank with a screaming two–year old.
When something happens that makes you annoyed—or like you want to shout, just give me the freaking ice-cream Twiggy—just notice those thoughts.
Notice those thoughts like the meditating monk does. Know that you’re only piqued because of your own insecurity. And let them wander on by.
Just as the monk is learning and growing, so are we.
Now, pat yourself on the back for signing up for another round of the most grass roots, down home, spiritual learning there is.
4. Try being successful at being flawed
Do you do that thing?
Where you tell yourself you’re going to waft about like a detached angel this year. You know, because you stopped eating gluten. And you did that course on self esteem.
But then before you know it you’ve snapped at your brother, made your mother cry and you’re elbow deep in trifle and lasagna.
(Trifle is an English dessert. It doesn’t look like much. But it’s one of the greatest inventions.)
We know what the grown-up thing to do is.
In the moment, we fall to bits.
But since they’re been with us for so long, is it reasonable to expect them to just vanish?
Within us lies an oasis of love and tranquility. Every time we remember to dig our awesome flawed selves, things start to shift on their own. We start to see more of this oasis. Even for fleeting moments.
We start to genuinely like ourself.
5. A simple trick to feeling more compassion
You’re trying your best, right?
You mess some stuff up, get other stuff right, but you always intend to do good.
As much as it doesn’t seem like it, everyone else is trying their best too.
Your father who “never listens” is trying his best. Your mother who for the love of god keeps commenting on your weight, is trying her best. Your cousin who always talks about how much his new house cost while you’re still saving for a cage for your hamster, is trying his best.
It’s easy to get caught up in our inner turmoil and forget this.
Next time you feel exasperated—while one half of your mind is saying what an idiot they are—see if you can see that they are trying their best too.
We all have a sack of vomity beliefs about how we’re not good enough.
We all just want to feel love.
A parting holiday wish
If you’re having a particularly gnarly time—
High five yourself for being in the middle of your biggest spiritual challenge yet.
For the confusion.
For the holy smoke this is different to what I thought my life would be like.
For what’s around the corner that you can’t see.
For being a much treasured reader of this blog. And a fellow muddler in life, like so many of us.
A big holiday hug from me. And also from Franco—my team mate and friend—who is more part of this blog than may be apparent.
PS: How are you? Do any of these ideas resonate? Are you feeling like the happiest person alive, or the saddest person alive or are you middling between merry as a postal worker and happy as the clown who makes balloon animals down at the mall? Are you alone, or with loved ones? Do you “have plans?” Are you Christmas or Festivus? Where are you? What are you doing right now? Love to hear from you below.