People sharing joy, generosity, love and a greater sense of compassion. We open our hearts and our checkbooks to those of lesser circumstances and the homeless. We’ll remember the sick or lonely, making sure to visit, or call, or write.
Those are wonderful, wonderful things to do.
Alongside these people we see clearly and remember during the holidays is another group, whose suffering is no less, but not as visible.
For many people, Christmas is going to be a long and painful ordeal. They’re caught up in the struggle of overwhelming problems that money and cheerfulness cannot solve. They face the kinds of tragedies people go entire lifetimes, entire generations without facing. Making matters worse is there is no quick fix for their problems, sometimes no fix at all.
This year, I’m one of those people.
I know just how uncomfortable it is to stare into the face of someone else’s crisis just when you’re celebrating your own blessings. I’ve been there. That discomfort means you understand the fragile nature of your abundance. By all means, celebrate your blessings; gratitude has its place, and it’s an important place at that.
Yet, somewhere, sometime, someone will end up pressuring people who are in excruciating spiritual pain to toss aside their feelings just for the sake of that someone’s unsullied holiday experience. Rather than exploring their discomfort, they’ll deny it by disregarding the very real and necessary pain of others.
Don’t let that jerk be you.
Guilt-tripping that person into attending a party will not just “take our mind off things.” Trust me when I tell you that being around people who have what we’ve lost (or fight to attain) will not lift our spirits or get our minds off our problems.
Please don’t be that person that will assail us with a thousand platitudes, punctuated by a thinly veiled insult that we’re ruining your holiday.
Any one of a hundred adaptations of A Christmas Carol will shame us for wanting Christmas to go away. Hallmark movies without end will mock us, opening with a problem that’s solved in one hour, starting with a Meet Cute and ending in a Romantic Kiss. All of this is coordinated by witty, anthropomorphic angels overpopulating Christmas Miracle Movies but not showing up for us in the Real World.
Some things are just bad as long as they’re bad and they’re going to be bad until they get better. And damned if The One In Charge has told any of us when that will be.
In the meantime, Christmas is going to … well … suck.
This is my Christmas list for us:
For the Grief-Stricken: Comfort and Permission
Grief reminds us of the value of the people in our lives. The depth of our grief, however, cannot be measured or compared. The grief at losing an elderly parent to a long, painful illness is different from the grief of losing a spouse to senseless violence, which is different from losing a child who’s short life was filled with disease which is, in turn, different from losing a child suddenly to disappearance.
Grief has no quick fix. Some days, grief ain’t got any kind of fix at all.
Grief is a nagging little bastard who plans to stay for a long while, waking you up in the middle of the night or ambushing you at the grocery store. Just when you think you’ve beaten it, there Grief is, slapping you upside the head one more time. And yet, that pain is the only way of saying “I still love you.”
Grief is the angel that reminds you that you loved, and the devil that tortures you with the loss.
Many a mother and father will walk by Santa this year with clenched teeth and tight fists, struggling not to lose all composure at the Mall. Just seeing the grocery store Salvation Army Santa may be hell.
I’ve written recently about my friend who lost her entire family in about two years. The only person connected to her now is her husband. Her in-laws have proceeded with Christmas as if her children had never existed, as if her grief is a frivolous indulgence. Had she the money, she’d be on the first Scrooge Cruise out of here, sailing the cold ocean seas with the grumpiest set of curmudgeons and biggest case of Shiraz she could find. I’d buy her the ticket if I could.
When she declined their dinner invitation this year, she’d hoped she wouldn’t have to say that it might be too much to sit through two hours of watching her nieces and nephews (the same ages as her children) open presents the first Christmas without her little ones.
Please take a minute. Think about how much we center Christmas around children: the movies, the gifts, the Santa displays. Now, please think about the parents who have lost their children to death, crime or custody. They would cut off an arm just to play Santa at two o’clock in the morning this year. Parents who have lost children are in utter agony right now, especially if it’s their first year without Santa, without opening presents before dawn or drinking hot chocolate for breakfast in their pajamas.
For them, Christmas is a red-hot knife in the heart.
For others, the loss is just around the corner. They will lose spouses, parents, friends. A man in our community was just killed by a drunk driver while getting a Christmas tree. I don’t think Christmas will ever be the same for that family. And honestly, it shouldn’t.
My first wish for the grieving is permission. Permission to grieve. Your pain is your only connection to the person you lost. It will take time and it’s nobody’s business how long that takes.
After that, I wish you comfort, in whatever shape or form it may take. If you need to bury yourself under a pile of Nicholas Sparks novels and read until you’re cross-eyed, go for it. If you want to sit in a dark room and binge on every cinematic bloodbath from Apocalypse Now to Pulp Fiction, because at least someone’s blowing things up when you can’t, have at it.
Just remember to drink plenty of fluids and get some protein.
I will not judge your grief, and I absolutely will not ask you to set it aside just because it’s the holidays. You, and the person or persons you lost, are for more important to be dismissed that way.
For those working for sobriety: Resolve
For many some, this year brings a fight for sobriety. Maybe substance abuse was the only way to make dysfunctional families or loneliness tolerable. Maybe it was the potentially lethal, numbing salve of a pain too deep to face.
If being with family means facing enablers and saboteurs, this year may very well mean spending the holidays either alone, or with fellow sobriety seekers.
Think about that: during this time of year, some people face an ugly reality: your family or your life.
Meanwhile, these folks will be surrounded by non-stop ads, movies and songs about a Norman Rockwell family holiday that, for them, is either a toxic lie or doesn’t exist altogether.
Others may attend functions and gatherings, only to white-knuckle it through, taking it one minute at a time during alcohol-filled dinners and parties. Maybe they need to hide their struggle, the truth central to their very identity, and masquerade around the people “closest” to them as if nothing had changed.
For all of you, I wish you resolve. From addict friends, I’ve learned it’s about surrender, not willpower. But isn’t it also about commitment to that process? Any healing takes commitment: cancer means commitment to chemotherapy or radiation, diabetes means commitment to a healthy lifestyle, etc. Recovery means making that healing a priority above love, above family, above relationships, above all else.
I hope for you a good support system, wise mentors, but because some of those may fail through no fault of their own, above all else I wish you resolve. If that means cold sweats and secret trips to the bathroom where you speed dial your sponsor, that’s okay. If that means sitting through multiple screenings of The Force Awakens because that’s what keeps you from using, that’s okay too. Just you make it through. That’s what counts.
To the Falsely Accused: Dignity and Patience
Then there are those who sit falsely accused and convicted, whether in jail or out. They bear the stain by of false accusations for everything from murder to child abuse to crimes against women. Some face the loss of family, others the loss of freedom, others the loss of life.
We are so ravenous for scandal these days, and scandal is so quickly accomplished, that it is easier than ever for a vindictive tongue and pointed finger to absolutely destroy a person. We just want the thrill of Story; forget about the Truth. Other people’s tragedies have become our amusement park rides.
At the other end of the problem is the fervor we’ve embraced trying to over-correct for past social sins. Our sanctimonious uproars relieve us of any guilt we have over the past, but we utterly forget the humanity of the people we destroy now.
My first wish is dignity. I will not dismiss your value as a human being by denying your right to be outraged at the outrageous and angry at the abominable. You shouldn’t be the only one outraged, honestly.
I once spoke to a man of the cloth at Canterbury Cathedral about anger. I’d earlier been accused of being an Angry Woman, the modern-day version of leprosy. He didn’t talk to me about forgiveness. He took me to the Shrine of Slain Martyrs, showed me pictures of the honored martyrs, and talked to me about anger.
“These people were angry,” he said. “God gives us anger, sometimes, so that we will do what’s right. God gets angry. Christ got angry. These people did something about it.”
The recognition of our own intrinsic value that makes us angry when wronged; it is the gas that fuels the engine driving us to seek justice.
Forgiveness of wrongs was never meant to be used as permission for them.
Then, adding insult to injury, where public minds rushed to judgment, the justice system crawls behind, and the innocent lose the one thing no one can repay: time.
So, hard as it is (and I do know how hard it is), I wish for you some patience.
To help, I give you a number: 93. Ninety three days until Good Friday. That, my friends, is the day that Christians commemorate the crucifixion: when an innocent man suffered a long, tortuous and undeserved execution, then looked to his beloved God and asked why he’d been abandoned.
Regardless of your religious convictions, please take this with you: if one of the most revered, worshiped figures in human history can be confused, angry, lost and everything else not warm and fuzzy in his moment of persecution, then sweetheart, so can you.
For those struggling with violence: Safety
Regardless of whether your spouse, your parents, or your government has turned its back on you, only to turn around and come at you with violence and the abject terror that can instill, I wish you courage. May you find unabashed, shameless courage – whether it’s the courage to run or the mettle to stand and defend your right to exist where and as you are. Whether you seek protection from authorities or refuge in the borders of another country – even if all you need to do is grab the nearest cast iron skillet and fight back, I wish you the courage to do so.
Whatever measures are wisest for you in this moment, I will not judge your decision.
I also won’t forget those who choose to face violence, choose it bravely and nobly to fight for justice, defend the helpless or bring aid to the suffering.
For you, you have my undying gratitude, my admiration, and my support. For your Christmas, I hope for two things: recognition for your efforts for your own sake, and imitation by your fellow men for the sake of everyone else.
To everyone: Gumption
I wish everyone above, and those I may have not mentioned, gumption – as well as its siblings: chutzpah, audacity and utter fearlessness.
May you have gumption to deal with all the people who will insist that we “snap out of it,” as if it were that simple, as if they could do any better. May you burst with the chutzpah to deal with anyone who accuses us of being “whiny” in their own callousness.
Should you so desire, I wish you the fearlessness to suggest to these jerks they enjoy their own company in the most biblical of ways.
Until then, cry if you must. Bawl your eyes out. Cuss, swear, make it an art form. Throw cheap, breakable things around the house. Just aim far enough away so flying shards of whatever won’t cut you in the eye. Commit crimes against nature with dark chocolate. Buy a Christmas Tree and burn it down to ashes in the back yard if you want to – just notify the fire department, don’t endanger your surroundings, and keep a fire extinguisher nearby.
Go do whatever it is that you have to do to January 3rd safely, when everyone else will be too overfed, overspent and exhausted to notice the rest of us; we’ll just blend in.
Thoughts on the Reason for the Season:
Christians often remind everyone about “the reason for the season.” Okay. Let’s talk about that.
Now, I’m not just speaking to Christians, because I hope what I’m about to say has something valuable for everyone who’s riding out a shit-storm this year. I won’t proselytize. Honestly, I’ve found such comfort in other religions that my pastor’s now on alert that I may declare my religion as “Hybrid” one of these days.
She’s remarkably okay with that.
Rest assured, this isn’t about being “saved”, or the validity of any religion. However, I did start off talking about Christmas, because it is kind of in our face at the present. So, the story behind the holiday is going to come in sometime – even I can’t get around that.
That said, let’s just look at what the story says is important.
The way I see it, quite frankly, is that you must have Christmas before you can have Jesus’s work (whether you take that for fact or not is up to you). Before He can change the world, He’s got to be born, right?
When I read the narrative of Jesus’s work, I read the story of someone who didn’t expect people to be all perky and pretty. In fact, he steered himself right to the most downtrodden and discouraged: the lepers, the sick, the grief-stricken, the accused, the despised of society – including women and servants.
His response wasn’t a broadcast of platitudes – “a smile is a frown upside down,” or “don’t worry, be happy.” The call for faith was not a ploy to make people and their silly little problems go away. While teaching faithfulness and trust, he also went in, rolled up his sleeves and got to work. He healed, he embraced, he loved, he advocated, he defended. He showed up, he stepped up and dealt with the overwhelming, unsolvable problems of people who were otherwise lost, alone and doomed.
The very fact that many people have held on to that narrative for over two thousand years shows you that no matter how far down you’ve gone, no matter how overwhelming your problem, you are important.
If Christmas is the Red Carpet Opening Night for that life’s work of compassion, then Easter is the Grand Finale launched by Good Friday.
Good Friday is the story of a deity, a holy being according to the New Testament, who chose – who opted – to experience the worst that any of us of will ever know. It is the story of a deity literally walking a mile in everybody’s shoes.
Regardless of what you believe about Christ: redeemer, prophet or just a Great Guy, the story of Good Friday is that the exalted does not distance himself, but chooses to know suffering intimately and completely through experience.
At the heart of this is the recognition that even the “little people” are important, our pain is important, and we deserve better than to be forgotten or brushed aside. Theology notwithstanding, the New Testament narrative shines a light on the problems and people who society often casts into the dark.
If you celebrate Christmas, if you remind people of the “reason for the season,” then I ask you to remember that this holiday celebrates a Christ who spoke for, embraced, then joined those who are oppressed, falsely accused, vilified, sick with grief or besieged by illness.
If your religion does not celebrate Christmas, but life just swung its Wrecking Ball of Disaster at you and left a big aching, burning hole where part of you used to be, I want to give you the idea that somewhere at a very deep level, the holiday is more than a little bit about how important you and your pain are. Many people will forget that and try to drag you into a “holiday spirit,” just to make themselves happy. Don’t let yourself make the same mistake.
For me to wish all of you resolve in a journey of healing, dignity in the face of injustice, patience in the time of trial, and permission for your grief, well, that’s the meaning of Christmas.