As the holiday season winds up for its last big week before Christmas, here are a few spiritual tips to help you remember what the season’s all about. This is part one of a two-part article.
1. The reason for the season.
I don’t care what religious denomination you call your own. The holidays are always about giving and giving back, which — if you really think about it — is the cornerstone of every thriving belief system.
For me, giving has a very specific look. It starts with hour after hour spent poring over the gift lists my wife and I have compiled, followed by standing in line after line at toy stores, department stores, and jewelry shops all over the city.
It culminates in a midnight attempt to get all of my kids’ gifts assembled while they sleep. My children still believe in Santa Claus, and I support the lie by ingesting cup after cup of hot coffee while grunting at poorly drawn assembly instructions.
But it all begins with remembering my first Christmas home for the holidays. I had been in rehab for a year and came home penniless, with no gifts. The only thing I had to offer my family was a handwritten letter, asking them to forgive my transgressions and walk with me as I undertook my arduous journey out from the nightmare of addiction and back into the waking world.
Needless to say, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house (my own included), but the love and support they gave me have helped me to remember, down through the years, that whether it be toys, baubles or love, the real gift is in the giving, not the receiving.
2. Have an attitude of gratitude.
It’s easy to lose sight of the important things in life. If you turn on the television, you are bombarded with commercials that tell you that only this product or that product can make you happy. But although things are nice, they aren’t what you need to feel good about yourself. They certainly aren’t what you need to feel happy.
Case in point? I have a friend who discovered several malignant lumps in her right breast. It was a horrifying discovery, to say the least, but it was compounded by the doctor saying that the breast had to go. Her insurance, the doctor reported, would cover the cost of a double mastectomy, and — if she opted to lose both breasts — plastic surgery would afford her two new breasts that would never sag with age.
Still, I couldn’t bring myself to buy into her optimism; I figured there had to be more to her dilemma than just a round of chemo and some plastic surgery. When we were alone, I asked her if she were frightened. “I’m scared out of my mind,” she said, “but I’ve got two toddlers to raise. They can take my breasts if it means I’ll live to see them graduate and get married. They can take my breasts if I get to stay and love them. It’s such a small price to pay for staying alive.”
We talked a little more, but after she was gone, I thought about my own burgeoning family and my heart broke with gratitude at the sounds of my children’s laughter. “You okay, sweetie?” my wife will sometimes ask when she sees me adoring our kids. And I usually take her hand in mine and kiss her gently on the cheek. “I’m fine,” I tell her, but I’m not. A lot of the time, I’m scared. I don’t want to lose any of them. I’m most grateful for family.
I think that’s the work you need most to do when the holidays get you down in the dumps. You need to find a quiet place and figure out what you are most grateful for, and hold onto it, whatever it is, even if it’s just the knowledge of where to find food when you’re hungry, because I’ve been there, too. The holidays are more than just Santa Claus and menorahs. The holidays are about finding your center in the eye of the storm. The quickest means to that end is always gratitude.
3. Never forget their names.
This is one of my favorites. It’s part of a quote made by President John F. Kennedy that reads, “Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.” It’s a great one for people dreading the trip home for the holidays. Because, you see, the lie we were spoon-fed while we were growing up was that families needed to be and act a certain way and, when ours did not, we felt short-changed or betrayed.
No one told us that “Father Knows Best” was just a television show and that “The Cosby Show” was actually just a bunch of writers sitting in a room playing make-believe. We saw these things and, although we found them entertaining, the truth of the matter is that a lot of what we were exposed to did little more than amplify how dysfunctional our families really were.
The fact remains that our parents weren’t given owner’s manuals when we were born — they didn’t know what they were doing. They were just men and women who found themselves saddled with children (tiny people, actually) that society demanded they care for in a specific way. Can you imagine the pressure? And, if not, then try to imagine raising your own children without the advent of play dates and the many support systems we’ve integrated into our culture today. You’ll see how easy it is to forgive our parents for being insensitive. They didn’t know what they were doing. A lot of what they did to us had already been done to them; they didn’t have any resources.
The trick to forgiving your family lies in acknowledging, first and foremost, that you are an adult now, and that you are capable of making your own decisions that have nothing to do with the insanity you grew up around. We call this individuation, and it happens when you develop the ego-strength to withstand exposure to other people without letting that exposure affect the core of your decision-making process. Is your dad domineering or controlling? Is your mother passive-aggressive? So what? In and of yourself, you are perfect, and everything is unfolding as it should. Liking your relatives and forgiving them go hand in hand.