Love. Revere. Discover. Connect.

November 17, 2010: “Surviving the Holidays”

Opening Reading: ‘The Invitation’ by Oriah Mountain

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.
I want to know what you ache for,
and if you dare dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are.
I want to know if you will risk looking the fool for love,
for your dreams, for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon.
I want to know if you have touched the center of your sorrow,
if you have been opened up by life’s betrayals
or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own,
if you can dance with wildness and let ecstacy fill you to
the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful,
be realistic, or to remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true.
I want to know if you can betray another to be true to yourself;
if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul.

I want to know if you can be faithful
and therefore be trustworthy.

I want to know if you can see beauty
even when it’s not a pretty day,
and if you can source your life from God’s presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine,
and stand on the edge of a lake and shout to the silver light of a full moon, “Yes!”

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up after a night of grief and despair,
weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done for the children.

It doesn’t matter who you are, or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied.
I want to know what sustains you from the inside when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself,
and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.


        This is certainly the time for not only the Serenity prayer, thought to be by the 20th Protestant German theologian, Reinhold Neiburh, and adapted by AA and the 12 step Programs-

        God, grant me the serenity
        To accept the things I cannot change;
        Courage to change the things I can;
        And wisdom to know the difference.

But the new baby boomer version as we age called the Senility Prayer:

        God, grant me the Senility 
        to forget the people I never liked anyway,  
        the good fortune to run into the ones I do, 
        and the eyesight to tell the difference!

         Keep both those prayers with you for the holidays; you'll need them!  Indeed, I often used to find myself 'bracing' for the holidays, like preparing for a hurricane, my mind full of conflicting emotions, concerns, worries, and as a man, I had it easy! I can't even begin to imagine what my wife or mother was going through at various stages of their married lives with the interactions of multiple families, children, in laws, outlaws, boyfriends, girlfriends, and all manners of relationships today that would certainly have given my dear grandmothers heart attacks! But we as Unitarian Universalist are now used to and welcome.

        I was blessed with a happy and relatively normal childhood and adolescence; I have wonderful memories of Thanksgivings and Xmases of my NH youth that, of course, can never be measured up to by present standards! It was not until I was much older that I discovered that my mother and my father's mother did NOT get along! So I guess they were not idyllic for my mother, of course, and probably not for my father, but he never talked about it. Almost all my relatives are gone, now as are most of Cathie's. Both of us are now orphans. Our children are in Texas. So while two of our kids will be here for Xmas, Thanksgiving will NOT be like my fond NH memories of extended family around the cherry dining room table with all the leaves in and laden with steaming food that even while writing about I begin to salivate- and even tear up as I think of who was sitting around that table. How old should I make myself for this memory? How old are you in your memories of your holidays? And who is missing?

        How do we survive the holidays?

        We all have different ways of surviving, but none of us can do it alone. Oh, we have the responsibility for ourselves and we choose how we respond to life and to our cocreation of it as well as what it seems to sometimes throw at us! Some of us may believe in a Supreme Being named God who may help us as well; I believe in a force called love that I find in religious relationship with what I call You, me, and the universe- relationship with others in community, especially beloved community, the inner self, and the mystery of the universe, the sense of sacred, the spiritual that for me is unnamed.

                    The former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Rev. Eugene Pickett, writes "Light, love, life-these are some of the universal need symbolized in the Christmas season." He warns us to watch out for their opposites and the mixture of these symbols which produces- "Christmas Syndrome: Away of not becoming entrapped in the 'Christmas Syndrome' is to refuse to go along with whatever it is that works to spoil the season for you. What really counts at Christmastime are aspirations of hope and peace, feelings of goodwill and joy, and personal relationships- the sharing of warmth and love. These aspirations and feelings and relationships are not something that will happen just because it's Christmas.

        This is especially so for those of us who are prone to loneliness. Faced with loneliness, we can meet it creatively- recognizing our deep need for relatedness- and strive to build relationships that are rich with understanding, empathy, and affection."

        Much of the holiday angst, of course has more to do with family therapy issues than it does with actual holidays, except for the fact that this next month of the holiday season is the most intense time FOR family problems to merge full blown as we are thrown together often whether we like it or not! Then stir in alcohol and/or drugs and in-laws and you have a recipe for disaster!            One obvious solution is to try to avoid alcohol and/or drugs if you can't avoid the problems!  Really, try something radical and go for a nonalcoholic Xmas/winter party.

        (From The Family Therapy Networker-July/August 1989 "Ritual: The Hidden Resource" Article-'Lasting Rites': David I. Kertzer: From a family therapists viewpoint, it is significant that Freud himself saw religious ritual as the product of family ritual, rather than the other way around. According to Freud, the first religious ritual was a family dinner."            "The childhood association between religion and family rites is the initial bond between the individual and the religious group... Although the power of ritual does not depend on the sharing of belief, it is none the less true that rituals provide a potent mechanism for shaping people's beliefs.... Rituals, in short, encourage us to interpret reality in certain ways....Ritual can also provide a potent vehicle for changing both people's perceptions and their social relations. Cultures use rituals to legitimize new social arrangements.

        The odds are quite high that with the combining of two family of origins, one might find a dysfunctional member or two, or three or a dozen more than likely. Rituals are more than important; they are absolutely necessary for our functioning, and especially around the Xmas or winter holidays, when the two big ones come only a month apart in the dead of winter and just before the beginning of a new year. It should only be surprising that there is not more hurt during the holidays, because these times hold up a stereotype of goodness and love, that few of us or our families live up to. Xmas, of course is a holiday that one cannot ignore, no matter what one's religious persuasion might be, because it has also become culturally commercialized.

        These holidays are hardest on women, of course, because they are usually the cooks as well as the shoppers, and often find themselves either comparing or being compared to their mother or mother-in-law and the meals they cooked. I would wager that we are often guilty of what I call 'comparison remembering.' We must let go of that, else we will always feel disappointed, blaming ourselves or what is much easier blaming our significant other. Creating new family rituals or participating in our church's seasonal rituals, may help us feel comforted, even towards healing. We can be like the phoenix rising out of our own ashes of the past.

        If you or a loved one has health issues over the holidays, family problems and emotional issues can be compounded. The Cleveland Clinic has changed the Pastoral Care Department to the Spiritual Care Department  and describes it as  providing for the religious and spiritual needs of those who come through our doors, including patients, their families and loved ones, and Cleveland Clinic staff and employees. In other words, just about everyone may need spiritual support at one time or another!

        'Our clinically trained chaplains are committed to providing appropriate and compassionate spiritual care while respecting each individual's own faith tradition and religious or spiritual beliefs.'  Then, and here's why I think this is related to surviving the holidays, they give a number of reasons why you might  want to request a Spiritual Care referral, and I want you to know that you have the same opportunity with your minister, especially during the holidays because these issues may come to the surface!

You are feeling anxious, frightened, or upset about your health condition.

You are struggling with what it means to you to be ill or wondering why this has happened.

You have received bad news or are facing a difficult decision.

You are having trouble sorting out your feelings and thoughts.

You have religious questions, or would like someone to pray with.

You want to receive a religious sacrament or rite.

You are grieving over a loss, especially loss due to your illness or injury.

You are facing life-changing issues or are wondering about end-of-life issues.

You need help to find appropriate spiritual support within your own faith tradition.’

        Many times the reason talk therapy helps may be as much the talk as the therapist, and the therapist IS very important. So is psychiatry, medication, meditation, and yes prayer and placeboes! But I will argue that you can start with talking!

        Paul Harvey tells about a robber in Oceanside, California wearing a motorcycle helmet and carrying a gun who strode into a branch bank. He selected a teller who appeared fiftyish, soft, kindly, an easy mark. 

He handed her a note demanding money or her life. The woman reached for the cash drawer. Then she looked again at the note and her eyes flashed, her lips clenched. She pulled the entire cash drawer out, but instead of giving him money, she clobbered the robber over the head with the drawer. And again and again. She was scolding him. Money was flying everywhere and she was beating him and shouting shame on him and bouncing blows off his helmet–until the young man turned and ran. Police caught him in nearby shrubbery. Then they asked the woman teller how come she was about to give him money at gunpoint and then, suddenly, instead, became enraged’ She said, “In his note there was a very naughty word.”

         Different people get upset at different things. But there are times when all of us get angry. And sometimes the worst thing we can do is hold that anger in. In a study of 139 patients with chronic headaches, researchers at St. Louis School of Medicine found that depression usually accompanies frequent headaches. Moreover, suppressed anger amplifies the depression and this, in turn, magnifies the pain.

        "It's a vicious circle," notes Paul N. Duckro, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior and director of the Biobehavioral Treatment Center. "Patients with chronic headaches get depressed because they're in pain and the pain interrupts their lives. In turn, the depression makes the headache worse. And if the patient is one who tends to hold in anger, the more depressed he or she becomes."

         Anger in itself is not a problem. It is the tendency to avoid expressing it appropriately that seems to be associated with increased depression. I suspect that the term 'going postal' is even more appropriate over the holidays!

        I read about a new pop psychology term that seem appropriate considering the current vampire romance craze, it's called 'vampire personalities,' the kind of negative people that suck the life out of you, indeed, out of a room! I also remember two terms that one of my favorite psychological writers from my college days, Erich Fromm, used in his book The Art of Loving; he talked about two kinds of people, biophiles, or lovers of life and necrophiles who seemed to be haters of life. We might call them positive and negative influences, and again, we can usually see in our lives who are the positive and negative influences; indeed, we might say the same thing about religion! Yet we know that it's not always easy for some of us to tell, is it. That's why I like to use the old Jewish saying in my pastoral counseling, 'If three people tell you you're drunk, lie down!'

        Since we can't avoid the vampire personalities we are related to or marry in to, we might be intententional to try to balance them by making sure we outnumber them by having positive people, as well as making ourselves stronger of course, by talking about how we are feeling before we have to deal with them. And we might also decide whether or not we really do HAVE to deal with them.

        The other way, of course, is to change the way we choose to react to them! In other words, since we probably can't change their behavior, we work on changing ours! And that's hard enough. But wait, you say; they're the crazy ones not me! Exactly. Which is why it makes sense that you should want to make the difference!  Some things are easy. Don't take the bait and start to argue with your argumentative uncle who is always saying outrageous things just to get a rise out of someone! Remember that sometimes its better to be loving than to be right. Don't try to please everyone either. Underachieve! Lower your standards! Turn off the Martha Stewart channel! Don't send holiday cards if you don't feel like it. There is no law or commandment that says you have to!

        Indeed, maybe you could just skip the holidays all together if you really wanted to! Now, I'm sure this would send the economy back into a tail spin, but I don't think there's much danger of too many people taking this advice.

        However, imagine if we decided to simplify and especially thought greener, and I don't mean more evergreens, for the holidays. Rituals are comforting, but how many lights on during the holidays do we REALLY need? And this from someone who loves Xmas lights!

        If you don't want to simplify the holidays simply for your own sanity, remembering that your sanity is directly linked to the sanity of those around you, then think of the environment!

        The liberal Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, though he was speaking of the 50s and 60s in his book, Courage to Be, still sounds like he is speaking to contemporary religious liberals. He said that the main problem of our time is the 'anxiety of meaninglessness' and describes three types of anxiety as basic to our very nature of being human: 1) fate and death,  2) guilt and condemnation, and 3) the anxiety of emptiness and loss of meaning.

        Perhaps because the holidays for me growing up WERE so Norman Rockwell perfect, I found myself suffering from exactly what Tillich described as emptiness and meaninglessness as I got older, as beloved relatives died, I moved away, as my beliefs changed, before my own children came along, especially in my 20s. It was that life transition time where I was profoundly changing my life circumstances, family situation, home, etc. My world around me was changing and I had to actually recreate meaning; I had to find a way to fill that emptiness. My friends became my new community, and Cathie and I actually started a friends Thanksgiving dinner on the Saturday night after the regular Thanksgiving when we HAD to be with family. But we could CHOOSE our friends, and so we did, for the next 10 years, I think, starting with maybe two couples and finally four couples and our various children by that time, some of my favorite 'Thanksgiving' memories. We created our own new ritual, just as the Thanksgiving dinner at the church has become for some.

        There are usually articles in papers around Xmas about how the 'Godless Unitarians who don't believe in Jesus' seem to have such popular Xmas Eve services; partly, of course, it's because so many of us find a spiritual need to celebrate that time from our childhoods or want to find our about if we haven't had it, and we create a somewhat different celebration even using traditional carols. We have created new rituals and new meanings with roots from the old.

        If love is a way to fill the emptiness and give us meaning, and I believe it is, then being a part of beloved community that is searching for religious meaning is a way for us to survive the holidays by being with one another as well as by holding hands and realizing that at the end of the day the person with whom we held hands might be the one we can reach out to again when we are feeling empty and our heart's need filling. When we remember that the minister tells us every Sunday that he is at the end of the phone 24/7 if we ever need to just talk. That there is that Sprit of Life, however we define it, that is also a power within us that is connected to the universe somehow.

        It is not that we have to create new holidays; it is that we have to find our own meaning for the holidays to make them truly meaningful for us. We must give up the comparison remembering, the comparison tasting, the comparison parenting, the comparison guilt and let it go on some holiday bonfire. Just imagine letting it all go, perhaps even saying to yourself when you find yourself becoming frustrated without he holidays, 'I'm letting it all go, I'm throwing it all on the fire...' and visualize that! Sing along with the carols, don't resist them! NOW, DON'T LET THEM HYPNOTIZE YOU INTO BUYING TOO MUCH EITHER!

        We must all find a way to create our own meaning, but there is help in our beloved community and in our search.

        May this season bring you joy 
        But if it doesn't,
        may you find a way
        to bring joy to the season    AGS

        May we cocreate our lives in such a way that when it comes our turn to take the final leap into the void, we will be all used up, but oh so satisfied, oh so missed by all, and we will have made a difference in the world.

May your holidays be happy, loving and meaningful. Peace on Earth and Good Will to All.