I spent all day yesterday pondering today’s post. Eventually, as I knit away at another Christmas present, I wrote it all in my head. It was positively brilliant. And then today happened.
On my mind the entire weekend was a common, familiar verse that I found in Ecclesiastes 3:1 – 8:
For everything its season, and for every activity under heaving its time:
a time to be born and a time to die;
a time to plant and a time to uproot;
a time to kill and a time to heal;
a time to pull down and a time to build up;
a time to weep and a time to laugh;
a time for mourning and a time for dancing;
To me it’s been a great comfort as the holidays bring, for me, a realization that I cannot escape anymore: sometimes life just sucks.
Alex Beam wrote a few weeks ago about his frustration with all the happiness-peddlers who had somehow had given rise to phone apps to measure his happiness. I don’t recall if he said it, or if he reminded me to write it, but basically, we’ve become addicted to happiness.
As the holidays approach, those people out there with unfair and heavy burdens to bear are going to be inundated by giddy holiday well-wishers, drunk with the “spirit of the holidays,” which for some will amount to little more than a series of parties and huge shopping marathon ending with a few hangovers, twenty more pounds and a credit card bill. However, they will sparkle, smile and shine until sometime in mid-January. It is their time to laugh and dance, to be sure. The problem arises, though, when some of these same people will try to force their size seven narrow vision of the holiday on other people’s size ten wide reality. Thus, people who are dealing with poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence, death of a loved one, chronic disease, necessary family estrangements or severe isolation will be told to “be positive,” “look on the bright side,” and “get in the holiday spirit,” all when this is their time to weep and mourn.
As someone who’s been through this experience, I have this to say to the well-wishers: yes, you mean well, but you are doing more harm than you know. Sometimes life just sucks, and the people who know this right now need to be assured that that’s okay. Don’t feel guilty, don’t feel ashamed. If you’re in a situation that bites the big one right now, then by all means, go with it. I’m not saying to go through the streets with tears tattooed on your face and your head draped in black organza as you howl a funeral dirge, but you don’t owe it to anyone to pretend to be an overgrown Barbi doll trapped in a Sitcom Christmas Special.
I got caught up in that one year. It was the first holiday season after my mother’s stroke, and she still wasn’t too sure where she was, or who I was. The brilliant best friend of my whole life had irrevocably lost overnight a few months before. My own health had been very bad during that period, and had reached a dangerous level. The last, absolutely last thing I wanted was to spend the holiday watching some happy family get together and replicate a Hallmark Thanksgiving Special when my beloved mother, my last living immediate family member, my best friend could barely carry on a conversation. And yet, I was going to spend thanksgiving the way everyone else thought I should and be happy about it. After all, it was a wonderful holiday, and I was supposed to enjoy being around a happy family, right? Even when mine was all gone, right? Just a few hours with some turkey around another intact family and I’d be good as new, right? And who was I not to comply, anyway, I’d just be ruining everyone else’s holiday, right? Wrong. I went. I got tanked. College spring break tanked.
I’m not all bah and humbug; I want people to enjoy the holidays in their own way. I want there to be laughter and joy and good will. But I don’t want to force it down someone else’s throat to make my holiday free of the harsh and lonely truths about life, either.
So, this year I’m thinking about all the other people out there who are going to get the guilt trip, the shame, the derision, the scolding for thinking that the holidays right now should just sort of come and go as unnoticed as possible, and if the government wanted to establish a temporary Valium subsidy, well then that would be just fine. Because otherwise, they are going to be doomed to watching a world dance while they mourn, and while the rest of the world tells them there’s something wrong with them for mourning anything: their health, a loved one, a job, safety, security, parents, children. Because for everything we’re going to express thanks for next week, there’s going to be someone out there who’s just lost it, and going to be mourning it in a big way. I’m not advocating wallowing in a hot tub of self-pity and nihilistic depression (although hot tubs are nice), but sometimes it’s not appropriate to celebrate in the face of tragedy, either.
When I was young, and a man broke my heart, or my father was ill, or some tragedy came over me or my family, I’d be upset and hate being upset. After all, it hurts, it’s bad, we want to avoid it. But my mother would offer me this, and put it into perspective: “What kind of person would you be if this didn’t make you upset? You wouldn’t have a heart if this didn’t bother you.” As I’ve lived through family deaths and illnesses, my own illnesses, miscarriages, the ups and downs of various things that have bombarded my family over the years, I’ve held this memory dear to me with each tear I shed. What kind of person would I be if these things didn’t hurt? Heartless, indeed.