Some Thoughts on
Surviving and Growing Through The
Where Your Help Begins
By Granville Angell, Ed.S.,
The popular conception of the
holiday season in our culture holds us to a picture of joy, celebration and family reunion
that adds yet another chapter to years of happy memories. Yet for many of us, this Norman
Rockwell picture of the holidays stands in stark contrast to the real-life scenario behind
and in front of us. This is a time when we are
supposed to be full of joy and
merriment and eager to celebrate the season with our friends and loved ones, but we just
cannot emotionally place ourselves into the picture.
No matter how hard we try, we find ourselves going through the motions,
"fakin' it in hopes that we will make it." Behind the forced smiles and gestures
are feelings of blandness and joylessness, or even hopelessness and despair. Some of us in
this emotional state may have awareness of how we arrived here, yet many of us are lost as
to why we may feel this way. Let's explore some of the sources behind the holiday blues,
along with some ideas for getting past them.
First, our culture places expectations on us that we are to have joy and
merriment during this season. We publicly recognize that this is the time to celebrate the
anniversary of powerful religious events, whether it be that of celebrating the birth of
our Savior or observing the celebration of Hanukkah. It has been reported that even folks
who are not part of the Christian or Jewish traditions find themselves caught up in the
festivities of the season. Also, since the dysfunctionalities of our culture so
interpenetrate our religious institutions, many of us have highly conflicted spiritual
lives (more on this later) which confuse us as to the meaning of those seasonal
expectations. We take time off work for these occasions and change our whole routine
around for the holiday celebration. What this all adds up to is the first cultural
influence we must face during this time:
the impact of expectation that
we must join the rest and get into the mood of the Season. However, emotions
and what's behind them don't operate on a time schedule. For example, we can't just hurry
up and get over our grief in time for the holidays!
The impact of time is the second cultural influence we come up against in our
efforts "to be with everybody else" in the season. On one level, the yearly
coming of "the Season" is the most powerful anniversary in our culture because
it is a shared event that comes around every year on an exact schedule for all of us,
whether we are ready for it or not.
The third cultural influence we must face about the holidays is
the impact of returns. Time brings us around again and, because of this recognized interval in
the cycles of our world, we come face-to-face with the changes over the past year. For
many of us, somebody who was with us last year is no longer with us this year. So, the
pain of grief becomes especially poignant, at best, and overwhelming at worst. For all of
us, as we get older, we remember holidays past, and naturally think of those who are no
longer with us. Thus, some element of grief can creep into our holidays and get stronger
year by year as we get older. Unresolved grief can become particularly painful for some of
us at this time, especially if we are alone.
In fact, our lack of resolution on certain issues in our lives is another
aspect of the impact of returns during the holidays. This is not just a period for
thanksgiving and celebration; it is also a time for homecoming. We are returning to each
other over the holidays and bringing with us all of our unresolved conflicts in relation
to each other.
Earlier in our lives, we moved apart. Children left home. Friends or relatives
moved away. And, we changed. Over the years, we change physically and, hopefully on higher
levels, we grow in various ways. Some of us may get sicker, though. Not, just physically,
but in other ways persons may deteriorate from year to year. Uncle Harry's alcoholism may
be worse. For some, this would be a return to an irritating inconvenience, but what if
Uncle Harry brought incest to your childhood during a drunken event? Or, maybe the drunk
was a parent, and you are home for the holidays with your children (just hoping...). So
many of us left home or moved away from someone with unresolved conflicts about the past.
Those conflicts don't just go away with time. They hide somewhere inside us, waiting to
spring forth when the holidays return us to old, familiar surroundings. If we have become
good at hiding our pain from ourselves, unresolved relationship conflicts may come up in
us as holiday depression at the thought of returning to each other; or as a sense of dread
or vague discomfort we can't quite put a finger on.
There is a saying: "We are only as sick as the secrets we keep."
Returning to each other over the holidays reapplies old pressures anew to those family
secrets and buried conflicts. Adult children hope a grandparent will stay sober for their
children. Grandparents hope a son is responsible-enough to look after the kids properly.
An aging widow faces her first Christmas alone. If only so-and-so won't blow up this time
. . . the concerns across the land are endless. Those of us who do the kind of work I do
know that some degree of family dysfunctionality is not the exception, but the rule. But
our culture hides its pains in the closet, then buries them under piles of gifts stored in
secret until that special day when we attempt to materially compensate for what we fear to
give spiritually and emotionally.
So, let's see if we are together in our perception of how the holidays are
experienced for so many of us in our present culture. Making believe we are alien
anthropologists monitoring the planet from our spaceship, what would we see? We would
observe a culture that sets aside a holiday period in which everybody is
supposed to be happy at the same time every year, regardless of what has happened
over the past year, or holidays past. This is in celebration of the anniversary of
powerful spiritual events, the significance of which by observation of cultural practices,
much of the population is mostly at a loss to understand or appreciate. Finally, everybody
returns to each other in various ways over the Holidays, bringing unresolved relationship
conflicts to be buried under an avalanche of commercial material festivities and goodies,
exchanged with forced smiles . . . and secret longings to "just get through another
holiday season." (This could double as a clue to why we still wonder if there is
intelligent life out there.)
Clearly, this scenario is not true for everybody, but if all of us were to
suddenly become honest with ourselves and with each other, the number of unhappy holiday
people would be staggering. One of the most common expressions I have shared with many of
my clients over the years (especially over recent years) is, "The craziness is not in
you . . . it's in our culture!" Often our suffering is largely due to how much we
take seriously, or identify with, our culture and its practices. If we look beyond and
through the holiday practices and expectations of our culture, we can gain some insights
that will have the potential to bring meaning and even joy into our experience of the
Survival and Growth During the Holidays
The first step we can take in
facing the holidays (and life in general) is to be honest; first with ourselves, then with
each other. There is really no law that says we
have to be happy just because
it's the holidays! Always, there is some underlying cause for holiday unhappiness. The
honesty required in identifying and owning our feelings forms the foundation of courage
required for discovering the cause. Many people who are holiday-depressed have been
depressed during the rest of the year and the coming of the festive holiday season sets
the mood state in stark contrast to the celebration of others.
For other holiday-depressed persons, it's clearly the season. If we step back
and look at the cultural expectations of the season upon us, it could be argued that a
negative or depressed reaction might even be a healthy response under some circumstances!
But, we must begin with honesty in identifying our holiday mood state to ourselves and to
others. It is important to remember that there are no bad or wrong feelings. All feelings
are okay: what's important is how responsibly we express them! Your ultimate well being
will be better served by honestly expressing sad-but-pleasant (real) as opposed to
happy-but-phony (unreal). By not tying-up your energies doing
"impression-management," you will be free to consciously observe yourself over
the holiday and, thus, ultimately identify the sources of your holiday pain.
Accept your feelings without putting demands on yourself to feel otherwise.
are! The holidays are a time in which life becomes concentrated.
As we return to each other and live more intensely, more happens in less time. Naturally,
we are going to experience a (probably intense) mix of feelings. This is a time, more than
any other, where we are called upon to communicate along the growing edge of our
relationships, unresolved conflicts included. Those of us who are consciously working on
our growth and recovery will welcome the chance to tear down walls and build bridges in
our relationships. Others of us will be too frightened, still, or too angry. When we do
express courage in trying to connect, our loved one may be too frightened, still, or too
angry. Anger, turned inward (as in smiling through your holiday rage), leads to
depression. There is one important thing we need to remember. For most of us, the holidays
will not be all joy . . . and that's okay.
It's called "Surrender" when we realize and accept the limits of our
control, while trusting that the Power behind what this season is all about will meet our
everyday holiday needs. This includes our relationships . . .especially our relationships!
In addition to a willingness to acknowledge and accept our own and others' feelings and
perceptions, we need to be patient with ourselves and with each other. It's okay to be
grieving over the holiday season! During such times, we should be sensitive and supportive
of each other. This means "being there" with someone in their grief (or
frustration, or fear, etc.), unless they express a desire to be alone.
For many of us, as we age, there is an unconscious realization growing in us
that can lead to discomfort, or even dread, as we approach the holidays. Year by year, the
seasons pass and we increasingly count the persons not present with each holiday season.
We return to each other with a renewed opportunity each holiday season to heal and resolve
old conflicts, yet we fear we are inadequate to the task. If we are getting any wiser at
all, we realize that material gifts can never compensate for the emotional pain . . . for
the potentially healing things that yearn so to be said. Will we risk it, finally? Will we
say it this year, or dreading the worst possibility, will we put it off to the next in
hopes they will still be around? There is a greater pain, by far, than the pain of fear
and that pain is the pain of love unexpressed. Time only exists in reality as
"now." And the only time we have power to express ourselves is in the
"now." What do we need in order to say what we know must be said now?
It is the fear of being honest and open about our feelings in our close
relationships that keeps us stuck. We fear rejection. Especially during the holidays, such
feelings do not open us to the experience of joy: not within ourselves and not with each
other. In the interests of "getting through it without a blow-up," we sacrifice
all the joy we could have through true communion for the trickle of delight to be had in
the momentary exchange of the goods through which we attempt to symbolize our true
feelings. And another year goes by with our feeling that something is missing.
The key to finding that "something missing" behind the holiday
doldrums is to be found in exploring the word, "meaning." Meaning is what
happens when our minds and hearts come together in such a way that something both makes
sense and feels right to us. We cannot experience joy in our present world without the
experience of meaning. Yet, in our culture, we try to do it all the time
during the holidays. We go straight for the joy, without discovering the meaning.
First, in spite of all the holiday ceremony, we tend not to go deep enough in
our efforts to
experience the meaning of the sacred events we are celebrating. Much
of religious tradition, as practiced in this culture, has taught us unfortunate habits
that are deadly to our spiritual lives. Many of us are taught to not ask questions
("lest you face an angry God's wrath"); and to go through the motions
("it's tradition"); and that all happiness and joy come out of our rightness
("Righteousness"), whereas all our pain and suffering come out of our wrongness
("evil"). This leaves us with religion based around fear and ritual, not joy and
Grace. This article does not lend time to explore how such practices damage our
psychological and spiritual development (I am in the process writing a book that explores
these issues in depth). Suffice it to say that an accurate metaphor describing how many of
us approach the concept of Grace as taught by much of our culture is well-portrayed by the
image of a starving man attempting to pluck a cherry out of an alligator's mouth.
The religious practice of much of our culture
uses tradition and authority to strain out the miraculous and mystical
from our spiritual legacy. In the historic religious tradition of our
culture, we are taught that we are basically evil and not to rely on our
own spiritual experience, but on some religious authority's interpretation
of scripture. Thus taught, many of us are deprived of awareness of the
powers of our intuition, the joy of experiencing the certain awareness of
God's Presence or even the sense of illumination that comes from scripture
revealed in a personal sense. Over time, the frightened child emotionally
and physically distances itself from an angry, threatening parent. In a
culture where so many of us have distanced ourselves out of a perception
of an angry, threatening God, it is difficult to fully embrace the concept
of the Nativity. Ultimately, if the meaning of religion and spirituality
is taught to us in threatening terms, we will tend
to avoid the issue of meaning.
Therefore, it is essential that we develop the courage to explore the deeper,
spiritual meaning behind the holiday period. I wish I had time, here, to say more on this.
First, look inside yourself and explore your actual experience of
religion and spirituality. Be honest with yourself. What emotions do you feel ¾ a sense of
fear and violation or a sense of Presence and support (Grace)? From a prayerful and
meditative state, locate any and all personally verifiable manifestations of your own
spiritual experience. If you cultivate this inner awareness, in due time, you will
encounter that "still, small voice," you may have heard of in church or
synagogue or read about in scripture. Look for synchronicities or "meaningful
coincidences" in your life that suggest the existence of a non-random, higher
Presence behind the events of your life. Read, really read, about the Spiritual events
that gave rise to the holidays. Take some time to be "alone" with your
growing sense of this Presence in your life, then take some holiday time to share and
explore with others who are willing to spend holiday time at this deeper level. If you are
to experience any real meaning in the holidays, it is essential that you seek this level
of experience as a first priority.
Once you have made a Spiritual connection, you will be better prepared to move
to deeper levels in your interpersonal relationships over the holidays. First, you will be
more inclined to be at peace with those conflicts over which you have no personal power to
change. But, what about those relationship issues we just know should be addressed; yet
our fear stands in the way? Taking strength from your practices described above, remember
that meaning, rather than relief or happiness, is the initial goal in your interactions.
It is easier to tolerate the discomfort (suffering) of a difficult interaction when you
have not labeled it (and you) as bad or wrong. You are seeking to understand and be
understood, so honesty with the other becomes as important here as honesty with self.
your truth, your perceptions and your needs; then listen as the other shares his or her
experience. We can never be wrong when we
share from our experience. Most of all, share your love, while you still have a chance. Of
course, this will be difficult and possibly painful. But operating from the truth, BOTH as
you understand it and are willing to hear it, is the only path to joy, peace and freedom ¾ during the
holidays or any other time.
Finally, this discussion must entertain our culture's focus on the material
side of the holidays and how that contributes to the holiday blues. Given the profound
multiplicity of Spiritual events, symbols and meanings in the story of the Nativity, it is
curious (or not) that our culture focuses upon, and extrapolates the most from, the gifts
of the Wise Men!
Perhaps the best argument I have heard (in my opinion) has to do with our
giving to our children, materially, as a way of symbolizing our giving to the Christ
Child; or giving to the inner Christ aspect of our children. How does that explain the
rest of us? It is not my impression that our culture is so absorbed with inner-child work!
We could do a book, here, on our awareness of how materially focused this erstwhile
Spiritual season expresses itself in our culture.
In the parlance of psychological slang, we sometimes talk about
"crazy-making behavior" as a term for behavior that tends to "induce"
mental illness in others. This theme was common in early psychology literature. We talked
about "schizophrenigenic mothers" and such, believing that much mental illness
was the product of bad parenting. Today, however, we continue to recognize at least one
predictably "crazy-making" element in childhood and adult existence.
When our experience and our perceptions, tell us one thing, and a person or
other agency with enough power and authority, tells us something contradictory to what we
perceive, the resulting confusion can be "crazy-making." The distress of
accepting "the reality" of those in power and authority over one's own
perceptions and knowing is a common cause of "induced" mental illness. For
example, it can be brain-washing, or it can be the result of abusive parents. In my
opinion, it can be the result of a society that identifies a Spiritually focused holiday
period only to define and express that period predominantly through a narrow lens of greed
and material acquisition. The significant number of us who fall prey to this seasonal
phenomenon, are set-up to expect something profound and eventful. However, from Halloween
through New Years, we are overwhelmed by the hustle-and-bustle commercial parade of
material goods, events and expectations that passes for things spiritual. In a way, when
the above is behind the depression and sense of meaninglessness that comes with the
Season, we could argue that such a response is ultimately psychologically healthy. The
remedy involves the undertaking of a personal Spiritual journey through the holidays (and
through life) which moves one in the direction of fulfilling one's deepest Spiritual
I know that many of these observations and recommendations about the holidays
in our culture may appear to many of us as being outside the norm and even attacking our
cultural practices. The nature of this article does not lend enough time to explore the
dynamics of a dysfunctional, materialistic, power-focused culture (bless it!) that is only
beginning to recognize the existence of an Overarching, "non-physical,"
metaphysical, or quantum Reality within which we live, and move and have our being. It is
an exciting time, as science is beginning to discover what true religion has been telling
us all along. For those of us who are courageous enough to seek these deeper truths as
they express themselves in our personal experience, we have the great joy of riding that
wave of Grace. Celebrating the holidays for their true meaning, openly sharing with others
from the sincerest depths of our being, is a wonderful place to begin.
ã 1997 by Granville Angell. All Rights Reserved.