Holidays are hard. If you can’t relate to this, I’m happy for you, but I also ask that you seek to understand and, if possible, empathize.
For many people, Holidays are the hardest time of their year. Why? Expectations that everyone will be filled with joy and good cheer when, in fact, depression and loneliness lurk behind all the lights and tinsel and TV specials. I heard a “Christian” radio program once in which two guys were talking about their wonderful Christmas memories and basically scolding everyone who didn’t appreciate Christmas as they did. I consider that the opposite of empathizing: why don’t you like this as much as I do when I’ve experienced it to be so warm and loving?
I love Christmas. I love Advent season, the smell of pine trees, I love trying to make this a magical time for our kids and keeping some focus on God. I love preaching during Advent. The Christmas Scriptures never get old for me. There are some layers of myth (a bunch of our Christmas story details don’t come from Scripture) but at its core, Christmas to me means Jesus’ incarnation, God’s coming in human form, which changes everything.
AND…almost every Christmas I can remember as a kid involved an explosion. Not fireworks, like they enjoy–really enjoy–in Nicaragua from December 1 through January 1 (give or take a few days) but an emotional meltdown by my father. I love my Dad, who died many years ago now. Dad loved me, as well as he could. I loved him then and I love him now, though there was a stretch in between where I had to forgive him and sort out how to love him.*
I think the pressure and expectations of Christmas being a perfect, wonderful celebration for all of us was too much. He was very high strung and suffered from bi-polar disorder (diagnosed only 6 months before he died). No matter how we tiptoed around or how happy we all were, at some point he would get triggered by something and Christmas day became his shouting at the top of his lungs while we waited for the storm to pass…if it passed.
I’m very fortunate and loved and blessed and I have successfully broken that tradition. Our family loves being together on Christmas and I don’t think I’ve ever lost my temper at my kids on Christmas day (though to be certain we’d have to ask them). But if I’m honest, remembering my fond childhood memories of Christmas Day–and my parents truly wanted it to be a magical day and were generous and committed to our family time together–always comes with a small knot in my stomach. I understand what my dad struggled with so much better than I did then. I don’t resent him. I’ve forgiven him
AND…I have all that baggage. What do I do with that? I almost curse having such a strong, clear memory. I almost envy those who can let their difficult past fade into a hazy, semi-rosy glow. But I can’t. That’s not me. God wired me differently, for good and for…challenging.
I empathize. People, many people, feel suicidal at Christmas time, and a huge number more feel miserable. Get that. Please. If you don’t, you are blessed and loved and fortunate, and I hope you can see that clearly and give thanks. Had I stayed on the trajectory that my genetics and upbringing might have set me on, I’d be that guy, too. How many steps, how many life decisions, how much grace has intervened to set me on a different path? I don’t consider “There but for the grace of God” a throwaway phrase. That’s my life. And I’m unspeakably grateful.
This all struck me clearly and afresh when, of all things, a friend made a kind comment to me on Facebook. A little context: my friend is an extraordinary human being who has no use of his arms or legs. He is a college graduate, a budding theologian, and a kind, encouraging young man. He brings light wherever he goes. I say none of this out of pity, but pure admiration. I know me and I know I would be severely tempted to feel sorry for myself if our situations were reversed, whereas I think would do fine given my lot. So I’m saying this is a young man who, at his core, is probably more godly than I am, by which I mean he has a deeper connection and a stronger faith than I do. Not flattering him, just calling it like I see it (as my dad always said).
So my friend told me I’m “pretty awesome,” and I started to cry. Just a few typed words. Cut into the deepest part of my heart in the good way, in the clean, sharp scalpel that cuts out rot and brings healing way.
Why? Because I’m not…and yet, I am.
I’m not amazing. I suck. In a thousand ways. And if you read this hoping for that list, sorry, I’m going to disappoint you (though I understand). Because my friend is not wrong, even though I could argue the case to my dying breath. By the grace of God, I am what I am and not what I could be, and the fact that a young man with such a heart and such kindness and joy can tell me that, can see that, doesn’t mean I fooled him, it means God has done great, miraculous, unexpected things in me.
I’m not going to reject his kind words, tempting as that may be for my insecurity and pseudo-integrity (which is really self-hatred disguised as “I’m just being honest”). I’m going to open my heart as wide as its still-limited capacity will allow and receive that word, not as an ego-boost but as praise to a God who loves me enough to change me. I mean, really change me. Transformation. Grace transforms us. If you can’t see how you are being transformed, take courage and ask someone who can see what you can’t. Then take it, however it makes you squirm and fight. Let it help cut out what is dark in your heart toward yourself and let in the truth that God’s love changes us and God’s love wins. In us.
What’s wrong with me? I’m going to give you three answers:
1)I focus too much on my sins and shortcomings and failures and not enough on God’s faithfulnes. How do I know? Because I want to argue with kindness toward and affirmations about me. But it turns out hating myself doesn’t actually make me more godly. If you wrestle with this, feel free to write that down, because we “know” this and yet we fall back into it all the time. Psalm 56:9b “This I know, that God is for me.” If we simply believed that, how would it change us?
2)I’ve heard some negative things about myself, some of them at a formative age. (Or maybe they’re all formative ages.) Without delving too deeply into my own psychoanalysis, that did some damage. I don’t know why some people can seem to shrug off horrible, potentially traumatic words while others take them to heart, in the most harmful sense. I just know it’s been a lifelong challenge (nice euphemism) to learn to believe other things about myself.
3)Because of 1 and 2, I’m susceptible to criticism, actual or implied…or completely unintended but read in, anyway. People have said I’m conflict avoidant, and it’s probably true to some degree; if it is, it’s because of the vast amount of emotional energy and time I end up needing to recover from criticism. That means I’m going to have to really trust you to hear what you want to tell me, because otherwise the cost to me will be really high and I don’t even know for certain that it’s accurate. I thank God for my wife and her ability and willingness to help me see such things more “objectively,” or at least from a different perspective.
All these make simple words of kindness and affirmation much more powerful for me when I can receive them. So here’s my conclusion: look around, with open eyes, for who is struggling and suffering this Christmas, these Holidays. Do not, on any level, be like those radio guys and shame people for not being cheerier at Christmas. You don’t know what people are carrying or what’s been inflicted on them. Speak words of life! Tell them God loves them. They may not believe you. Tell them what you see that is beautiful, true, or loving in them. It’s not your job to make them accept your words, but you can give them the opportunity.
And here’s a crazy thought. Since you don’t know who is struggling or who has heavy baggage, Holiday or otherwise, just go for it: take the risk to affirm everyone you can. Call it a Christmas present you don’t have to put on your credit card. Don’t flatter or lie, just look for good and speak it.
Like my friend did.
*My dad suffered severe asthma and emphysema (what we now call SARS) and it both robbed his physical capacity and induced him to become embittered and depressed. He was never the same. Being physically debilitated exacerbated his mental and emotional struggles. Chronic illness hit and shattered him…and his pieces never really went back together. And I loved my dad.