Happy Holidays/What’s Wrong With Me?
There is something eternally heart-warming and nostalgic to me about the descent into winter and the beginning of the holiday season. And yet, I’m also keenly aware of how painful it is, when the lens of this time of year settles upon our culture like a magnifying glass over a butterfly’s wing and burns what is broken or imperfect or doesn’t measure up to the relentless versions of ‘happy families full of cheer’ which we are inundated with on every last television commercial and greeting card. This time of year has become about expectations more than embracing the reality of what is. And if we fall short of the expectations we hurt. There is a spectrum of hurt — some of us only experience little pangs of it while others are paralyzed, depressed or suicidal. I think we all feel it on some level though, regardless of our situation. It’s an acute, introspective time of year.
I had the privilege of being in a room with the almighty Iyanla Vanzant one time when she said: “Comparison is an act of violence.” The whole place went quiet with the heavy, heavy truth of that statement. To compare ourselves to anyone else is a set up for deep hurt. Because inherent in the comparing is the notion that we are not as good as the other. We hold ourselves up against the model of who we think we should be to see where we’re falling short, what we’re missing — not to honor what we already have/are or to celebrate our uniqueness.
When I’m at a friend’s house staring at the plethora of holiday cards on her mantle — especially the ones which feature a happy snap shot of the family + family pet turned into a Christmas postcard — I’m not thinking: “How lovely.” I’m thinking: “What’s wrong with me.” Because I don’t have a mantle full of cards. I have an estranged father, a complicated mother, a sister overseas who hasn’t been home for Christmas in over 10 years, no living grandparents, no relationships with extended family and a pair of children still deeply traumatized by my decision to leave my husband last year and bust up our nuclear family. I have a phenomenal community of friends but we tend to text each other quick notes of love and support more than send cards.
Instead, on my mantle, I have the bouquet of feathers I’ve collected over years on my daily walks with my dogs, pictures of my kids when they were babies, a beautiful ebony Buddha, a collection of candles and vases, a picture of the Virgin Mary with a poem of gratitude in Spanish for the saving of sailors made by a street vendor I met years ago in Mexico City and a huge bunch of dried hydrangea from the bushes in my new front yard.
When I look at my mantle on any ordinary day I feel abundance and gratitude and overwhelm for all the beauty and freedom in my life. When I look at my mantle during the holidays I feel: LACK. It’s the same mantle. It’s the same life. With all of its holes and sorrows and imperfections and tough choices. Why does it feel deficient and negative during the holidays? Because the lens is no longer focused on what’s there. It’s focused on what’s missing. And the pain burns the delicate butterfly’s wing.
I think gratitude is delicate actually. It’s not a big, sturdy declaration. It’s gentle. It comes up almost like tears do. We have to let it come. We have to engender the softness to host it in our hearts and minds. Against the manic backdrop of rushing and cooking and hosting and attending and dressing and decorating and spending, spending, spending — all with the unconscious pressure of feeling NOT GOOD ENOUGH humming in the background — it’s very challenging to be in true gratitude. It’s much easier to slide into despair, funnily enough. Just as you’ve never felt more alone than walking solo down a bustling New York avenue, it’s being pushed up against the fullness and liveliness of this season that makes some of us feel, by sharp contrast, the emptiness and sadness in our lives even more intensely than usual.
So I’m making a concerted effort this season to take the lens back and hold it with two steady hands over all the things I love best and want to magnify in my consciousness. I’m reminding myself that there is space in the places where my life doesn’t perfectly match against the fantasies of how a life should look. There is space inside of lack. There is space inside of brokenness. Space holds potential and generosity and possibility. Space is like a blank page for our stories. And in the telling of them, even the painful parts, we can celebrate them. We can let the gratitude bloom, gently. We can be easier with ourselves for what might be missing or out of alignment with the ideal.