Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Holiday survival tips

Since what I posted the day before yesterday about the holidays ["Holiday 'wars'"] will certainly incite, irk, inflame, and otherwise irritate many, I figured I'd try posting something today of a less confrontational nature.

Many people find November and December to be particularly difficult months.

I experience the short days and long nights, coupled often with cold weather and urban snow (you know, snow that gets immediately sooty and slushy and decidedly unattractive within moments of falling), to be the occasion for 'seasonal affective disorder' (SAD), myself. That probably complicates the situation for a lot of us in the Northern Hemisphere concerning holiday time.

Irrespective of our geospatial location, however, the Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Year time frame presents challenges to serenity for most and sobriety for some.

Much of this is due, I suspect, to the hype that attaches to those observances. What works for me, to counter the hype, is to be fed spiritually.

A few suggestions, then, for spiritually navigating our way through the coming days:

1.) Expectations are premeditated resentments. Friends who go to Al-Anon meetings have been trying for years now to impress upon me how important it is for me to be aware of what expectations -- especially hidden ones! -- I'm harboring concerning an upcoming event or situation. This is especially true of the holidays or big family celebrations. For example, I always counsel soon-to-be-married couples that low expectations of family and friends pay huge dividends in return: If I'm expecting absolute perfection from manifestly imperfect human beings, I'm setting myself up for certain disappointment. If, on the other hand, I inure myself against almost-certain 'disaster' -- Uncle Ethbert having too much to drink, again, and doing a swan dive into the wedding cake -- then I can be relieved and consider it a wedding gift when Uncle Ethbert only collapses the huppa AFTER the vows have been pronounced, leaving the cake unscathed. [Names have been changed to protect the innocent.] I'm fed spiritually by taking stock of my expectations, hidden or otherwise.

2.) What other people think of me is none of MY business. If I'm concerned that my guests will think less of me because there might be streaks on the windows at the peak of the cathedral ceiling in the room where I'm having Christmas dinner, there's something wrong. If I'm afraid that they might think *my* Christmas tree isn't as big as theirs, or that I'm serving the wrong drinks, or that my outfit isn't 'designer' enough, there's reason to suspect I have no clue what Christmas is about in the first place. Let's get one thing straight from the get-go here: Jesus was born in a barn. There were farm animals there. It smelled like there were farm animals there. Do you actually think Jesus cares about the stuff that we can get ourselves upset over? I'm fed spiritually when I get free from the tyranny of what others might be thinking.

3.) What other people think/say/do is about THEM, not about ME. I do not have to let my self-worth and raison d'ĂȘtre hang in the balance of other people's actions and attitudes. Other people have the right to be wrong, after all. If I throw a party and they choose not to come, that's on them, not on me. It's about them and their choices, not about me and mine. (I'd like to *think* that it is: After all, while I may not *be* much, I *am* all I ever think about!) I say again: other people have the right to be wrong. If they're not going to show up for what I'm doing, perhaps I need to consider doing something else, inviting others, or getting myself invited somewhere else. Life is about healthy compromise, and about being fed. So I need to do the best I can to arrange to make the best of whatever situation I find myself in. I'm fed spiritually when I let go of the need to psychoanalyze the motivations and actions of others, and concentrate on identifying what I need to be doing for myself, in order to benefit from whatever's going on around me.

4.) If I can't be with those I love most, I need to try to be of service to others. If I'm far away (through time or geospatial distance or because of separation/death) from those I love, it's important for me to grieve in a healthy way. One such manner is to get off my duff and go try to be of service to others: go to a soup kitchen, or to a retirement home, or to a cancer ward. Ask a local parish if there's someone who wants to go to services but has no way to get there, so you can give the person a ride. Go to a VA hospital and look in on some wounded warriors who have been there for many, many years, forgotten by others. Get out and get busy. If getting out is not an option, then use the phone or the internet or simple pen and paper, and make contact with others that way. Call the Chaplain at a local VA hospital and ask for first names of patients you can write to, and then send those letters to the Chaplain (so that HIPAA regulations won't be violated). Be creative! I'm fed spiritually by the act of being of service to others, so what better time of the year to do service than Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Year's Day?

5.) Spend some time in meditation/contemplation/prayer. When all else fails, follow directions, right? Precisely because the holiday season carries with it so many expectations, and so much hype, and so much conspicuous consumerism, do yourself the favor of trying to improve your conscious contact with a Power greater than yourself. I choose to call that Power "God" -- but whatever floats your boat! If I'm in touch with something beyond the here-and-now, if I'm making the effort to unite myself with all that is best and most life-giving, if I'm engaging in 'spiritual exercises' [see earlier blog posts of mine, for example] to remind myself that I'm not -- ultimately -- alone, even and especially if I'm feeling lonely in the moment, I'll feel more hopeful than if I don't. ("Help me." "Thank you.") At least that's been my experience thus far! This is, of course, an obvious way of being spiritually fed, but one that is all too often overlooked, I'm afraid.

6.) If all else fails, remember that each day is just another day. Thanksgiving is a Thursday in November -- for folks who call the U.S. their native land. (Canada has an entirely different Thanksgiving Day; this year it was 13OCT08.) Thanksgiving is the day after a Wednesday and the day before a Friday. If I've gotten through Thursday this past week (I have), then there's a reasonably good chance I can get through the next Thursday and the one after that and the one after that. Most of the people who have ever lived did not ever celebrate Christmas. It's another day, and this year, another Thursday. I've not been having any particular problem with Thursdays this year (although of late, it's been difficult or impossible to use the telephone here Down Range on Thursdays), so it's reasonable to assume I'll be able to get through that Thursday as well. Living a day at a time, as my friends who go to AA and Al-Anon meetings keep telling me, feeds my spirit in a profound way, since only in the present moment do I have any hope whatsoever of having conscious contact with a power greater than myself.

7.) Finally, don't psyche yourself out! Whatever I feed, grows. If I'm feeding fear and resentment and shame and regret and confusion and sadness, they'll just keep growing. One only need look around us in these last years to see this affecting whole societies, and not just individuals. If I keep telling myself, "I won't be able to get through the holidays," or, "It's going to be really, really, really tough this year," or, "If he/she doesn't call/write/show up, it will ruin my day/week/month/year/life," all that bad stuff will just continue to grow and fester and get bigger and more overwhelming, and I'll see that prophecy fulfilled. On the other hand, if I tell myself, "I have a God big enough to handle this situation," or, "I've been blessed beyond measure for so long, that even the present sorrow/separation/situation cannot erase that fact," or "I made it through yesterday and the day before, so I'm sure to be able to get through today, and probably even tomorrow as well," *that* stuff will grow and blossom and comfort and console. Whatever I feed, grows. If I'm feeding myself spiritually on what's good and right and true and holy and loving and grateful, *that* is what will enable me to handle whatever life brings my way, even during the holidays.

On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.

(Zephaniah 3:16-18; New Revised Standard Version)

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ

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