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November 4, 2007: “Balancing the Holiday Budget: Surviving The Happy Holidays When You’re Not”

Perhaps the most agreed upon part of these upcoming holiday is that there is lots of food. Theologian Erma Bombeck once said that the most remarkable thing about her mother is that for thirty years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found. Some of us believe that about our Thanksgiving meal.

There are those practical back to the earth people who decide to raise their own holiday turkey. Some say that some people are squeamish about this, but one particular turkey-raiser said he wasn’t squeamish . “One January,” this person related, “our family got together and picked out a turkey to raise, who became like a member of the family. We kept him in the house, fed him, and took him for walks. But when the time came, there was no nonsense about it. We had him for Thanksgiving dinner. He sat on my right.”

The title tells it all. The next 2 months of happy holidays is torture to those who are not! We all strive for balance even in the good times, but these next 2 months put tremendous strain on many of us. Let me share some stories, then, of people who overcame adversities- no, not miraculously, but day by day, by setting their minds, memories, and metaphors on the positive, even in the midst of sorrow.

Do you remember when Superman became a quadriplegic? He became even more super! And Unitarian! When Superman Actor, Christopher Reeves, was thrown from his horse he was paralyzed from the neck down. He lost the use of his entire body

‘My identity and self-esteem had always been based in the physical world. I cherished health, athletics, travel, and adventure. At first I couldn’t imagine living without those things. In an instant, paralysis created an indescribable void. Family, friends, and well-wishers from around the world assured me that prayers and my faith in God would comfort me. I tried to pray but I didn’t feel any better, nor did I make any kind of connection with God. I wondered what was wrong with me: I had broken my neck and become paralyzed, possibly forever, but still hadn’t found God.

Finally I decided to stop beating myself up. I wasn’t in school anymore and I didn’t have to get good grades in religious studies. When reporters continued to ask me about the importance of religion in my life I began to answer by saying that I’m not sure if there is a God, but I try to behave as if He is watching.

Gradually I have come to believe that spirituality is found in the way we live our daily lives. It means spending time thinking about others. It’s not so hard to imagine that there is some kind of higher power. We don’t have to know what form it takes or exactly where it exists; just to honor it and try to live by it is enough. Because we are human we will often fail, but at least we know that we do not deserve to be punished. That knowledge makes us safe and willing to try again. He search for religion, and was trying Scientology, but just couldn’t accept all of the tenets. He didn’t believe that his paralysis was either punishment from God, nor was it something he somehow was responsible for. Living in Connecticut, away from Hollywood, he and wife somehow made it to a UU church, and like many of us remember; he felt like he was home!

As these thoughts unfolded in the process of learning to live my new life, I had no idea I was become a Unitarian. Dana and I were talking after church not too long ago, reflecting on the service and religion in general. I told her that what I liked about Unitarian Universalism is that you are not presumed guilty when you walk in the door.’

Christopher Reeves life could have been over with his fall, but instead, he discovered new meaning from a life that had been seemingly blessed with the American dream of stardom and riches. Indeed, one might argue that his life did not take on true meaning until he faced a life of paralysis, pain, and complete dependence on others. Yes, having the money for the care helped as well, but that’s not what really saved his life. What saved his life was the problem, the adversity, and the discovering of how to live fully despite that! He found inner wisdom and strength. His best selling book would have been nothing if he were just a Superman actor.

This time of year seems to be so stress-inducing; there’s just so much to do, and we often overextend ourselves, taking on more than is healthy for us. While Xmas shopping, someone reported seeing a “Clown” music box in a gift shop which had this note beside it: “Clown is defective when wound up.” Directly below someone had added: “Aren’t we all.”

Another story in the form of Rabbinical Poem by Rabbi Harold Schulweis:

Playing With Three Strings

We have seen Yitzhak Perlman
Who walks the stage with braces on both legs,
On two crutches.

He takes his seat, unhinges the clasps of his legs,
Tucking one leg back, extending the other,
Laying down his crutches, placing the violin under his chin.

On one occasion one of his violin strings broke.
The audience grew silent but the violinist did not leave the stage.
He signaled the maestro, and the orchestra began its part.
The violinist played with power and intensity on only three strings.

With three strings, he modulated, changed and
Recomposed the piece in his head
He retuned the strings to get different sounds,
Turned them upward and downward.

The audience screamed delight,
Applauded their appreciation.
Asked later how he had accomplished this feat,
The violinist answered
It is my task to make music with what remains.

A legacy mightier than a concert.
Make music with what remains.
Complete the song left for us to sing,
Transcend the loss,
Play it out with heart, soul, and might
With all remaining strength within us.

It is our task to make music, to make life with what remains, with what we have to work with. A late addition to the list of famous Unitarian Universalizes around Xmas is Noel Regney, composer of my favorite contemporary Christmas Carol “Do You Hear What I Hear”. A member of the Westport, CT Unitarian Church, he wrote it during the tension-laden times of the Cuban Missile Crisis, hence the line “Pray for peace, people everywhere”. That was a holiday season that teetered on the edge of a nuclear nightmare!!

Psychotherapist Dr. Kenneth J. Doka, editor of a newsletter from ‘Hospice Foundation of America,’ writes: ‘The holidays cannot be what they once were’ in bold letters in his editorial ‘Do the Right Thing;’ He asks the practical question for some of us who have lost a loved one of who sits at the head of the table now that father, mother, wife husband, etc. is gone for the first time? ‘This is the key to coping with the holidays.’ he writes,’ Everyone’s response to grief is an individual one. The point is to find the way that is right for you… Holidays cannot be what they once were. ‘Repeat this after me, because I think it is an important mantra for us all to chant this season as we try to make everybody happy and satisfy everyone-: ‘Holidays can’t be what they once were!’

‘You can’t escape but try not to be alone. The Holidays may also affect other family members. (Talk about it to them.) Avoid additional stress; …Do the right thing: not what others think is right, but what you need and want to do.’

What great Unitarian Universalist advice, you see, both about managing to survive the other side of the holidays, but also our lives. We, especially, have the theological and psychological freedom to Celebrate these holidays the way we feel the need to.

In the same newsletter, my Pastoral Care Professor at seminary, Rev. Paul Irion, writes ”Memories are painful because they are our living link with our loved ones who dies,’ he writes,’…Memories bring tears to our eyes and make our hearts ache because they remind us of how much we miss our loved one’s presence. We long for things to be like they used to be. However, memory is the medicine of mourning.’ That’s another sentence to chant-Memory is the Medicine of Mourning!’ ‘ Those who have done research into the grieving process,’ he continues,’ point out that as mourners remember their loved one again and again, healing takes place….The pain of memories gradually decreases through the very process of remembering, talking again and again about the one who died. Instead of fearing the pain of your memories of holidays past with your loved one, plan your family celebrations in ways that stimulate the healing memories.’

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..

I love the story of the newly weds and their first Xmas dinner of ham. The bride carefully sliced off the ends of the ham before she put it in the oven. ‘Why do you do that?’ the husband asked. “Because that’s how my mother always did it,’ she responded.

The next time he talked to her mother, he asked about it, and she said, well, I don’t know either; frankly that’s what my mother did. Since the grandmother was still around, he had to get to the bottom of this. HE asked her about it, and she said, oh, because when we were first married in our apartment with the tiny oven, the ham wouldn’t fit otherwise!’ AH, TRADTION!

In the spirit of these holidays, wisdom from anonymous email:-,’ the following is something to ponder…………..

If you woke up this morning with more health than illness…you are more blessed than the million who will not survive this week.

If you have never experienced the danger of battle, the loneliness of imprisonment, the agony of torture, or the pangs of starvation .. you are ahead of 500 million people in the world.

If you can attend a church meeting without fear of harassment, arrest, torture, or death…you are more blessed than three billion people in the world.

If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes on your back, a roof overhead and a place to sleep…you are richer than 75% of this world.

If you have money in the bank, in your wallet, and spare change in a dish someplace…you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.

If your parents are still alive and still married…you are very rare, even in the United States.

If you hold up your head with a smile on your face and are truly thankful…you are blessed because the majority can, but most do not.

If you can hold someone’s hand, hug them or even touch them on the shoulder…you are blessed because you can offer healing touch.

If you can read this message, you just received double blessing in that someone was thinking of you, and furthermore, you are more blessed than over two billion people in the world that cannot read at all.

Have a good day, count your blessings, and pass this along to remind everyone else how blessed we all are!’.

‘The Ten Suggestions for the Surviving the Holidays’

  1. Don’t try to please everyone! You will never do it, so you just set yourself up for failure and possibly DISPLEASING everyone for the holidays. Unfortunately, that IS possible!’
  2. Don’t do anything you don’t want to do, simply because ‘we’ve always done it this way!’
  3. Scrooging(pre-conversion experience), bah-humbugging, and not having fun IS allowed; not everyone must be happy at all times during the holidays. ‘One cannot get through life without pain.’ writes oncologist and inspirational writer Bernie Siegel, MD..’What we can do is to choose how to use the pain life presents to us.’ We can also choose how we are going to to celebrate or not celebrate the holidays. It is not our responsibility to please others (refer back to Commandment 2.)
  4. Make up your own meanings of and for the holidays. Don’t feel very thankful this year because you just lost a loved one or your job? Decide how or even if you want to celebrate.
  5. Thou shalt not feel guilty. Thou shalt not condemn thyself. Your feelings are no one’s ‘fault’ and they are valid. If you suffer from a mental illness, especially. It used to be called demon possession and it still often feels that way!
  6. Thou shalt not compare childhood memories to the adult present. One grief pamphlet says: ‘Take a realistic look at the propaganda of the season and your own screened memories of past holiday.
  7. There may or not be a way to have fun over the holidays, especially if you are still grieving, but don’t let it stop you from trying.
  8. Don’t get into massive debt that will severely deprive you of Xmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Solstice- cheer when the bills come in. Money does not buy happiness; it can’t even rent it! Debt never brings happiness, however!
  9. Express yourself clearly and if necessary, forcefully-what you might want for a gift, what you don’t want to do for the holidays, and also how you are feeling.
  10. Don’t self medicate pain or depression through drugs or alcohol-try multivitamins, exercise, and humor; find someone to talk to. Find the religious path that is right for you. Remember the wise words of Alcoholics Anonymous-Just get through one day at a time!

Let us survive, even thrive during these difficult times. We are here to love and help one another! Peace on Earth and Good will to all. Hugs all around.

Closing Words

Let us learn to play with life at least for a time, for now we seem to work too hard at it. Let us learn to sing when we have only spoken, for the melody casts our words on winds of hope. Let us learn to enjoy cadences of poetry instead of pages of prose for they may be closer to the rhythms of life. Let us make room for fancy while we give fact a rest.

Let us take more time to build a snowman than to shovel a walk. Let us lift our face to the heavens and let the snow caress our eyes and tantalize our tongues, while we forget its treacheries underfoot. Let us learn to smile when we are tired with the work we have to do. Let us learn to laugh when our tensions give rise to anger. Let us learn to be merciful when we want to be judgmental.

Let us play for a time in the fields of myth and legend: for news and facts to make it, will be there always. Let us sample the whimsical words of the poets more than the studied works of the scholars. Let our thoughts roam in realms of imagination rather than linger in quagmires of reality.

And so, may hope find its way into our hearts even when our minds tell us there is no hope; may charity speak to us even when we have nothing to give; may loving kindness be with us when our store of love is exhausted.

Let it be so, for a time, for a season. And perhaps that season will linger and linger and take hold of us, never to let go.
–Richard S. Gilbert