Remember Charles Dickens’ opening lines to A Tale of Two Cities? “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. " These words apply to more than just Paris before the French Revolution. Welcome to the holidays! If you're older than 5, these are the days that we genuinely love to hate. Depending on who you are, it's either a time to squeeze an enormous amount of work into your already over-full schedule and pouring out money that you can ill afford so that you can entertain people (some of whom get on your nerves unmercifully). Or, you find yourself depressingly alone with no one to care about or for. Has the Grinch got me this year? No, not really. Only, as a student of the midlife transition, I see holidays as an opportunity for an already difficult situation to become desperate.
One of the principal difficulties with the holidays every year derives from the fact that people go into them without sufficient reflection. Isn't this the same issue that lies at the heart of so much of the unpleasantness that surrounds the midlife transition? People (especially men) charge headlong into potentially stressful situations without forethought and without sufficient mental and emotional preparation. It's all about your expectations, when you come right down to it, isn't it? Somehow, you really want this year to be ‘perfect’. You couldn't manage to squeeze out a hearty ‘Bah! Humbug!’ regardless of how much you want to shout it out. Because we as a culture have, for the most part, forgotten how to celebrate, we replace what should be celebrations with ritual obligations that, if not performed ‘correctly’ cause us shame. That's an emotion that people in midlife can ill afford!
It's no easy matter to transform a holiday obligation into a celebration. It requires some skills that are in rather short supply these days, I'm afraid. First, it takes reflection: the ability to go deeper than the surface, down to touch what sentiments you genuinely want to experience during the holiday celebrations. Next, it takes communication: sharing with the important people in your life your insights and asking them to share theirs with you. Unless this goes beyond asking, “Whose house?" and “What time?" and “What should I bring?", you're not going to be able to escape the magnetic pull of the old routine. In addition, it's going to take creativity: having a shared vision of what you want the celebration to express and to feel like and then taking the effort for everyone to contribute her (or his) creative energies. If it's going to be different this year, the women can't be stuck in the kitchen while the men watch TV. Finally, it's going to take shared responsibility: everyone doing his or her part with a sense of joyful anticipation to pull it all together.
If you really want to break the mold, there has to be a spiritual aspect of the holidays - regardless of the religious tradition members of your chosen ‘family’ come from. Saint Theresa of Lisieux wrote that if you so much as pick up a pin with love in your heart, the gesture has infinite worth. If everything that your family does to prepare for, to celebrate, and to clean up from the holidays is done with only just a little love, the drudgery and obligation of this time of year can be transformed into a real celebration. Without it, I have my doubts.
One last reflection on the holidays before I close. Most of the ‘obligations’ that you and I are so used to striving to live up to are all self-imposed. That saying ‘no’ can be an act of love appears as one of the hard-learned lessons of midlife. If saying ‘no’ does not save your loved ones from a difficult, stressful, even agonizing ritual that masquerades as a celebration, it will at least rescue you from that fate. Not only can you choose whom to celebrate with, if it's truly to be a celebration, it becomes your duty to choose wisely and well. There is a Japanese saying that goes, “Rarely are the members of a family born under the same roof. " At midlife we get the gift of being able to separate our family of choice from our family of origin. Sometimes they're the same; sometimes they're not. At the holidays, once we've freed ourselves from external expectations and we've started listening to and acting upon the expectations of our hearts, the holidays may well become transformed into the kinds of celebrations that even surpass our hopes. It could happen!
H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
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