How to Have a Perfectly Imperfect Holiday
Before you start reading this article, do me a favor. Put down what you’re holding (in your hand or your head)—your shopping lists, your third cup of coffee, your datebook, the phone call you should be making—and sit quietly for just 60 seconds. Take in a full breath, let it pool gently in the bottom of your lungs, and then release it slowly. Inhale deeply again, and exhale with an audible sigh. If you’re at work, don’t worry what your colleagues might think—this time of year everyone would love to sigh deeply, and often. Inhale again; exhale with a long “aaahh.” With each exhalation, let your shoulders drop and your jaw relax. Do this a couple of times, with your eyes closed. Let the “aaahh” sound emerge from your belly, move up into your heart, and drift out into space as you exhale, slowly, smoothly, steadily, . . . Now, open your eyes, and continue reading.
Helloooo?? Anyone there? It felt good to escape for a minute, didn’t it? But come on back—it’s that time of year again: the modern miracle known as The Holidays, when into the dark little month of December, we squeeze Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and a myriad of other celebrations, from ancient Solstice rituals to the more contemporary rites of school plays, office parties, and community gatherings. Throw into that mix a generous dose of unrealistic expectations, budget-busting shopping, dysfunctional family feasts, airplane flights, darker days, colder weather, excess eating and drinking, and no wonder that along with “peace on earth, goodwill toward men,” come seasonal stress, exhaustion, and depression.
But this year you can do something to spin your stress into the gold that is the promise of the season. Understanding and relinquishing your unrealistic expectations are the best ways I know to beat the blues. I’ll share some truths about the holidays help me have more joy and less stress. Let’s start with the word “normal”…
There is no such thing as a normal holiday . . . I once saw a bumper sticker that read, “Normal is someone you don’t know very well.” This is a good thing to keep in mind always, but especially now, when we assume that the normal people are all having happier, healthier, and more harmonious holidays than we are. We imagine their mailboxes stuffed with Christmas cards and party invitations, their homes decorated in Martha Stewart splendor, and their intact and idyllic families primed for five full weeks of good cheer.
I don’t know these people, do you? The most effective thing you can do to reduce holiday angst is to wipe the word “normal” from your vocabulary. In my work, I have met tens of thousands of people from all walks of life. I have yet to meet a normal one, if normal means consistently sane, contented, and capable. And yet most of us hold ourselves up to an unattainable standard of human perfection. The 12th-century poet Rumi called this phenomenon, the “Open Secret.” He said each one of us is trying to hide the same secret from each other—not some racy or evil secret but rather the mere fact of our flawed humanness. We expend so much energy trying to conceal our ordinary bewilderment at being human, or our loneliness in the crowd, or that nagging sense that everyone else has it more together than we do, that we miss out on the chance to really connect, which is what we ultimately long for. Especially during the holidays. Even those people who may seem to be living out your idealized vision of the season have an Open Secret.
So, here’s something you can do this holiday season: Open up your Open Secret. Overcome your embarrassment at being human, and tell a friend that you didn’t get one party invitation. Maybe she will reveal the same thing, or she’ll bring you to the one party on her list, or together you’ll go your local homeless shelter and help the kids decorate the tree. Tell your brother that you are worried about how much your mother drinks at the annual Christmas dinner; ask him to support you in dealing more honestly with her this year. Don’t just say, “Fine!” when a colleague asks how you are at the office party. Say, “Sometimes all this ho-ho-ho makes me feel lonely.” You’ll be surprised by the response. Suddenly a mere acquaintance will open up his secrets to you, and soon you’ll feel more connected, not only to him but to the real meaning of the holidays.
The holidays are about joy, but also about struggle . . .
All of the religious parables at the heart of the holidays are about awakening joy in times of darkness. They are about hope and hopelessness; home and exile; celebration and grief. They are never just about joy. Joy is the gold we mine on the spiritual path, but that path traverses all sorts of uncertain and difficult terrains. So, when you feel the darkness of the season, settle in your heart, you can connect with a whole lineage of spiritual seekers who have wrestled with the human condition throughout history. Turn to the spiritual teachings of Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, winter solstice, and the lesser-known December holidays. You probably didn’t know that December 8 is Rohatsu, which commemorates the day in 566 BC when the Buddha attained enlightenment. Like Mary and Joseph, who found no welcome at the inn, and birthed the baby Jesus in a manger, and like the Maccabees who reclaimed the desecrated temple and lit the miraculous light of Hanukkah, the Buddha awakened his joy after a long struggle, under the Bodhi tree, alone and hungry. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Father writes, “Truth and goodness are not always found at the top, but often on the edge and at the bottom . . . Not in the center of empire but in the backwaters of Bethlehem. Not among the established, but clearly among those who are dis-established.” Christmas is the ultimate story of outsiders finding sanctuary, creating family, and birthing joy against all odds. If you are feeling alienated, or anxious, or full of grief—or if the despair of the world is weighing heavy in your heart—you need seek no further than the stories of the season to help you find light in the darkest month of the year.
Below are some tips to get you through the season…
- BE GRACEFUL WITH CHANGE: As families change and grow, traditions will change as well. For example, if you are a working woman who had a stay-at-home mother, instead of trying to reproduce the exact old-fashioned holiday of your childhood, infuse what you can do with meaning, beauty, and love. If you are divorced, or single, or far away from your family, invite others into your home and give the words “extended family” new meaning.
- HELP OTHERS: … not because you should, but because reaching out beyond yourself is a two-way street. Acts of kindness and generosity boost the spirit of the giver and the receiver. Find someone who is struggling, lonely, or just needs a little tenderness, and lend them a helping hand.
- HELP YOURSELF: Eat well, drink a lot of water, exercise, and then be merry. Instead of making one more feeble New Year’s resolution to join a gym or take a yoga class, do it right now. You will be amazed at how just the littlest bit of exercise—taking the stairs, walking with a friend, doing some sit-ups as you watch TV—will lift your spirits, and how decreasing the amount of junk food, sugar, and alcohol (and increasing the amount of sleep) will cheer up even your Scrooge-iest moods.
- SIMPLIFY: Don’t close your eyes the next time you use your credit card. Overspending during the holidays will not only increase your stress now, but it will also leave you feeling anxious for months afterward as you struggle to pay the bills. Buck the holiday system of excessive gift-giving, and practice simplicity, creativity, and basic human kindness. The planet will thank you, too.
- GRIEVE: If a friend or family member has recently died, or if you’re far away from home, or like many people, you are mourning the loss of love and kindness in our nation these days, practice the lost art of grieving. Put your hand on your heart, allow yourself to feel the empty place carved out by the loss, and fill it with your breath, your tears, your tenderness. You can create an altar with pictures of those you lost, play sacred music, and allow yourself to feel, remember, heal. You may be surprised how grief clears a path toward peace and joy.
- FORGIVE: Pumla Gobodo Madikizela, of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee, calls forgiveness, “Empathic Repair.” If you would like to repair your own heart, try a little forgiveness. Forgive all sorts of people this holiday season—those from your past, your work, your family, and the ones in the news that cause you anger and bitterness. Forgiveness is not forgetting—rather, it is deciding to stop drinking from the bitter cup. Read the stories of people (like Elie Wiesel or Dr. King or Pumla Gobodo Madikizela) who have used forgiveness to move mountains. If they can do it, so can we.
- A SENSE OF WONDER: Remember how magical life seemed this time of year as a kid? You can cultivate that sense of wonder every day. There is magic in the smallest things and beauty all around us. You can find it even during the hard times; even with the cranky and crooked people of the world; even within yourself, with all of your quirks and blunders. Look up from your phone and all around—at the lights in the store windows, the little kids in their coats and hats, the kind grocery clerk, the bird at the feeder, the dark night sky. They are miracles, each and every one. It’s a matter of perspective, of changing the station from gloom to cheer, even for a few seconds. In one of my favorite Van Morrison songs, he sings, “Didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder?” That’s the true meaning of the holidays. May it be so for you.
Just these few simple steps will remind you that you’re not alone this holiday season and you, too, can be perfectly imperfect!
This essay was featured in the December 22nd edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.