When Christmas Hurts

I once made up my mind to get a divorce on Christmas morning. My alcoholic husband had not come home. It wasn’t the first time and Christmas wasn’t his holiday, but this was my Christmas morning. It wasn’t what I deserved and it wasn’t what my little girl deserved.

Another Christmas, my heart hurt so badly I could barely go outside. My new baby had died. I had his blanket, but he was gone. I didn’t want to live because it hurt too much. And Christmas—every image of Mary holding baby Jesus—made me cry again.

When your heart is broken, Christmas can really hurt. It’s easy to drown in false family images and media hype. It feels impossible to swim against the tsunami of “should’s” and “if only’s.”

Here’s how to survive a blue Christmas.

 1. See the hype for what it is.

The first step is to see the media hype for what it is: lies told by advertisers. Every advertisement wants to sell you an emotional image because that’s how the companies make money. They don’t know you personally and they don’t care about who you are. They know that manipulating people’s dreams increases sales. Images of happy families and romantic couples sell products but do not tell any truth about real families, real couples or real life.

So shut out the false images. Turn off your TV. If you watch old movies, remember that the movie producers needed to make money too. You can sing “White Christmas” all you want, but in the real world, snow is cold and needs to be shoveled.

2. Look to January.

Try taking your mind past the Christmas season. January is real so go there. Make concrete plans to start new things in January. If your heart is broken, try experimenting with online dating in January, just to see how it feels. Maybe you’ll learn something new. Is there a hobby you’ve always wanted to try? Sign up for a class in January, and do it now.

3. Be honest about family.

Family dysfunction is a third source of Christmas pain. Even if we only see our family once a year, Christmas really rubs our noses in the yuck. Not only do we get all the old patterns shoved in our face, but myths about so-called happy families make everybody crazy.

It’s a myth is that all families are happy or should be. What’s real is that families are happy sometimes, but all families—all families— have hidden, unhealthy, unhappy patterns.  Some have a few, and some have many, but all families have problems.

There’s only one way to move towards a happier family, and that is to openly work on what is not working. But media and our culture pretend that none of that exists. We think, “Wow, what’s wrong with me?” And the holidays, with all the “family togetherness” messages make us feel that we’re the only ones who aren’t happy.

One way to handle this is the temporary patch, the “I can do it for a few days” technique. If it makes your mother happy that you go to church with her, you can try doing it, telling yourself that it’s only one day a year. As you sit in church, you can plan amazing and creative January rewards for yourself.

But what if sitting with your belittling, criticizing father makes you feel hopeless and crazy? There are good people who do not go home for Christmas.

Just because it’s family does not mean it is good.  Just because someone says they love you does not mean they know how to love you in the best way. Some of the cruelest wounds from families happen when a family member says they are loving you when in fact they are manipulating, hurting, belittling or abusing.

Maybe you need to find other family. Not blood family, but people who support you and care for you. That’s what real family love is— not a false façade, not fake emotions.

And you need to talk to a therapist. Many family patterns destroy individuals with their cruelty.  A therapist’s job is to support you while you learn how to love yourself better.

Perfect families—which is such a part of Christmas hype—are a fantasy that hurts people. Even though most people want to hide family problems, denying them is exactly what causes emotional pain and illness.

Lasting joy comes when we see the unhealthy along with the healthy. I am  whole and so are you—but we are complete, complex packages with both good and challenging qualities. And that is okay.

Being happy and whole with your own family is possible. There are  truly happy families— But their joy is neither automatic nor easy. Taking the first steps towards real family happiness means seeing a sympathetic therapist and getting open-hearted, nonjudgemental support for the real you. Then you can scrape off the fake roles and discover the truth of love that might lie hidden underneath.  A  real family loves the authentic you, not the pretend you. That’s where real family love is.

 

4. Look for the light beyond despair.

But what if someone you love has died? There’s no quick fix. Turning off the TV and making new plans won’t touch that pain.

Think instead about love itself. The love that person had for you still exists because love itself never ends.  Yes, it’s easier when they have their arms around you in physical form. But real love is an unseen, eternal thing.

Love is forever, without beginning or ending. It’s stronger than bodies and bigger than time. Love stretches unchanged from before time began to beyond the horizon of eternity. You still have that love now, today. You always will. If you sit quietly and close your eyes, you can still feel the love.

Buddhists teach that after death the family or loved ones should send thoughts of encouragement and love to the dead person. The idea is that the one who has died can then feel that it’s okay to move on into another level of existence.

Try sitting quietly and sending your loved one a message of encouragement and gratitude. Even if your loved one died in pain, you can feel gratitude that the pain has ended and that your loved one is free and at peace.  It doesn’t bring them back, but it might help you see today in a new way.

If there is just no relief from your grief, then see a therapist. The death of a loved one can feel like trying to carry 1000 pounds. You don’t have to carry it alone; it’ll hurt you to keep trying to do it alone. Grief therapists exist to help you carry the weight.

Light in the Darkness

In the end, Christmas—like life—is about light in the darkness. I’ve been in despair. What I know for sure is that, if I get help and keep breathing, the year turns. It happens slowly, but the light comes back. Not in the way I wanted, maybe. After all, my marriage was really over. My dead baby was really gone. But eventually something changed because things always change. I had three more perfect, exquisite babies. Eventually I found a partner who cherished me as I really was.

And so sit with me now in the darkness. I know your despair. Life is sometimes cruel. Families hurt us and loved ones abandon us. And no matter how much we love someone, bodies stop working and people die. I know that darkness.  It seems that the light will never come back.

Here, take my hand.  Breathe with me. Let yourself open to the things you have never imagined. The darkness around us is complete and that is okay.

Darkness is the source of all birth. Darkness is the womb of hope. The year always turns. The sun always rises.  Death is a beginning, not an end.

Breathe slowly with me. Be gentle to yourself. Wrap yourself in kindness like grandma’s quilt and wait.

I know something that you don’t know. The love inside you is a seed. Your only job is to wait for the sun.

Christmas matters because it is the darkest time of the year. It is the longest night. Our job is to trust that change happens. Sit with me.  I promise you that the light will come again.

In Ely, Minnesota, we will have a “Longest Night” service for people who feel quiet, thoughtful or sad at Christmas. The service will be at the First Presbyterian Church at 6 pm on December 21st. This will be a gentle, quiet, heart-energy service of love and remembrance. Everyone is welcome, whether or not you are Christian.

Walk With Me

Three turning points on the path to inner peace

Am I the prisoner or the jailer? Or am I both? I gaze out of my prison. It’s dark, and I’m desperate and afraid. I don’t know who I am.

Come with me to a new place. If you want, we can sing as we walk. There’s a long road ahead still, but I know this path is mine, and it is right for me.

There is a place of great safety, where “Today I might die” doesn’t matter. In that place, the executioner is loved as much as the hanged man. Tumors that break bones don’t matter and neither do needle tracks, promiscuity, despair, regret or betrayal.

A Christian hymn says, “We are pilgrims on a journey.”

The Sufi poet Rumi says, “O you who’ve gone on pilgrimage—where are you, where, oh where?”

The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore says, “I’m a traveler, a pilgrim. No one can hold or stop me, not the bonds of joys and sorrows, not the room I live in.”

Maybe you don’t believe in God. That’s all right. Maybe religion leaves you empty. That’s fine too.

Our destination is kindness and caring for all beings. We’re going to walk beyond pain and shame and hatred. The word that you attach to the destination, how you name it, doesn’t matter.

I have wandered a lot. What I know is that there are three major turning points, three forks on this road. All of them help answer the question “Who am I?”

1. I am not my body.

This body is a wonderful temporary organism. Sometimes it’s fun, sometimes it wants food or sex and sometimes it laughs out loud at smelling and feeling and sensing life.

When infection touches it, the body gets sick but it can fight almost any germ. After all, it’s been practicing staying healthy since cavemen fought saber-toothed tigers. The body knows how to grow, how to heal and how to stop when it’s time.

Who am I? Am I the joy and health of my body? What if living in the body is torture?

If I have AIDs or cancer, is that who I am? Am I my tumors? No, absolutely not. If I am 95 and slowly fading, is that who I am? Christopher Reeves was more than his body when he looked like superman, and he also was more than his body when he lay paralyzed.

We are part of the whole. Divine intelligence dwells in our bodies, making them sacred tools. We hate to admit it, but our bodies really are temples of holiness. We heal from sickness because our bodies are more brilliant that we can imagine. And yet a body is temporary.

On our pilgrimage, it doesn’t matter if this body gets broken today. When we are quiet enough, when we meditate or pray, eventually we discover silence. The silence is the truth beyond our bodies, the wholeness that needs no body.

Even with cancer, even on a ventilator, even in addiction, even in death, our perfect essence belongs to the wholeness that is eternal.

Imagine your body as an ice cube floating in a sea of all that is, floating on the living water of kindness—and then melt. We are the water, not the ice cube. We are the ocean, not the wave.

2. I am not my story.

The cruelest thing our family and friends tell us is, “I know who you are. I remember everything you have done.” They say, “I love you, but let’s admit it. You’ve never been able to do math.” “You’ve made mistakes.” “No man will ever want you.” “You’re not really star quality.”

It’s so common that we don’t even notice it. People pretend they are being honest. But those pronouncements lock us into prison because we accept the lies as truth.

Kindness could be just as honest. “Wow. That was such a great thing to do.” “Why don’t you try again? I bet you’ll get the hang of it.” “I know you’ve got it in you to succeed.” “Forget the past. It’s over. Look to the future.”

Much worse than the judgments of others is how brutally we judge ourselves. We savage ourselves again and again, and we think it’s good.

After all, we think the story of our life is who we are. We think our past is our identity. If we “succeed,” then we have permission to be proud. If we “fail,” then we must be ashamed.

Think instead of the story of your life as instants of perception that have passed. They were lessons that you have finished.

You can let them go. Your story is like heavy chains that drag you down. Your story keeps your hands busy so you never reach for joy.

Here’s the trick—You’re clutching those chains. Nobody wrapped them around you. If they are there, it’s because you agreed to accept them. You said, “Yes, it’s too bad, but that is who I am.” Your own hands are pulling them tight.

You can let go. You can open your fingers and let it all slip away.

You are not your past. You are not your story. And the ones who really love you will help you let go.

But if I am not my story, then who am I? Sometimes people think their story was ugly, their pain was bad, but at least it gave them a special identity.

You can find a better identity.

You are more than just your body and more than just your story.

3. I am not my thoughts.

Ever since I was a baby, my mind has been creating thoughts. For many years, I assumed that my thoughts were my truest identity.

Some were good, and some were nasty. I could tell close friends my deepest thoughts, and I thought that was telling them who I really was.

Many of us use thoughts to whip ourselves. If I feel guilt or shame, I can punish myself again and again. “I shouldn’t have done that.” “He did that to me! How terrible!”

If we have an obsessive edge, we replay the bad scenes thousands of times. We would not do that to someone else, but we do it to ourselves.

Even our good thoughts are tricky because we are such brutal judges. We think, “I forgive her, so now I am good.” But that gives immense power to a flimsy thought.

Unconditional love means not judging—and that includes not judging ourselves.

One of the first things meditation teaches is that thoughts are neither good nor bad. They just are. I can let them go.

When I think, “I am good,” I can let that float away as a wisp. When I think, “He’s a bad person,” that can also just float away as a wisp.

When I think, “My body is ugly,” it’s just a wisp, neither good nor bad. When I think, “I should never have taken that last drink,” it can melt away. When I think, “There is no hope,” it’s just another strand of nothing.

Practicing meditation gives me the skill to let my thoughts float away without identifying with them. Without meditation, I don’t know how I would accomplish this.

That’s why meditation is one of the ways we heal into wholeness. That’s how meditation brings us closer to God—It helps us love ourselves in a completely new way.

Even after 30 years, practicing meditation is still hard for me sometimes. And it’s hard for everyone—even for the Pope and the Dalai Lama. Our thoughts are so intrusive and so compelling that we think they define us.

But we are much more than our thoughts.

We are pilgrims on our way to a new place.

Even if our bodies are failing, we are whole. Like ice cubes, we are melting into the whole.

We are both temporary and eternal.

Just as an ice cube freezes and melts, we take shape and then melt. Are we just the temporary shape? No, we are the essence out of which the ice cube forms. We are the living water.

So even when we are dying, we are whole. The ice cube melts to water as a form of release.

Even if we have failed terribly in the past, we are whole. Nobody dodges life’s lessons, but once the learning is done, we can open our hands and let the chains go. We are not our story.

Who we are today is the only thing that matters.

Even if our thoughts are clever, brilliant, terrible or sacred, they do not define who we are. They are like smoke on the wind. They melt away because they are nothing.

We are holy pilgrims, even when we cannot define God. We arrive at the sacred place beyond words, beyond time and beyond individuality. We rest in the immensity of all that is. “I will die” and “I was born” don’t matter.

In this place, it’s easy to touch one another. Our edges have melted. Who are we?

We are the connection itself. We are pilgrims on a journey to the truth of utter kindness.

Here, take my hand. Look into my eyes. We melt into each other and become one. We are whole.

 

[An earlier version was originally published on http://www.elephantjournal.com]

 

 

 

 

 

Mrs. Stanley’s Lesson

It’s how these things so often happen. Early on a Monday morning in about 1979, after I had finished meditating, something came to me. It was Mrs. Stanley’s face or maybe her voice. It overwhelmed me.

These things come like a distant bell, a magical, haunting, beautiful sound that you cannot ignore. I hadn’t even thought of her in more than ten years, but there she was, my high school English teacher, calling me.

By then my life had gone seriously wrong. My first baby had died, my poor drunk husband had gone home to his own country, I was poor, and every so often depression crippled me.

The joys I had were my little girl and a new sense of hope and love. I had started to meditate.

On that Monday morning what I suddenly knew—out of nowhere, I thought—was that I had to tell Mrs. Stanley thank you. It was obvious. Looking back, heaven was prompting me, but at that time I hadn’t figured that out yet. I got a card, wrote a note and mailed it.

A week later the phone rang and there was a trembly fairy voice. “Jean, is that you? Is that you? Where are you? Where are you? Come and see me.”

She was in Madison General Hospital, dying. By now I knew a little bit about death, so I went right away.

She is lying on pillows, oxygen tubes in her nose, IVs in her arms—Of course, all her smoking. Lung cancer. The room smells bad, and it’s dim and grey. Her voice is still low, but she can barely whisper.

“Your little girl? I thought you’d bring her.”

“I was afraid to—I didn’t know how you would be.”

She nods. “What did I give you? Why did you write? Was it my teaching?”

This part I know. “No….The teaching was good. But it was never what you said. It was how you were.”

“How?”

“Remember when that girl tried to kill herself and she came into your room?  And you climbed into the ambulance with her and went with her to the hospital?”

She sighs a little. “Poor girl. Yes…yes.”

“You cared so much. You would say anything, do anything…. We were so stupid. So immature. We laughed at you, and you just ignored us. It was how you were, not what you said, not who you were. You were there for us, for all of us, even when you weren’t supposed to be. Even when it was embarrassing. You told us the truth. You were strict but you cared. You always showed that passion, and damn everyone else.”

“How did you hear me? How?”

I shrug. “I just knew. I just knew—It just came one morning.”

She falls back onto her pillows. “So there is something….Oh God. Oh God.” Tears slide down her cheeks.

It was the only time I saw her. In a few days she died. She was one of my most important teachers.

Here is Mrs. Stanley’s lesson: It’s not who you are or what you are that lasts, that matters forever. It’s how you are. Kind. Tender. Caring—No matter who laughs at you. How you touch. How you speak.

Touch kindly. Be there for others. Let your eyes shine because that’s God’s joy. Tell others how precious they are so they know.

How you are is exactly how God happens in this world. How you are is the only thing that matters. That’s it—the whole thing. It’s not what to be, not who to be. It’s how to be.