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.

Choosing Light

Guest Blogger: Rev. Frank Davis

The days are certainly growing shorter as we make our way down into the dark and cold of another winter.  For some folks this is a dreaded time as the Vitamin D of sunlight begins to ebb away away for awhile. For many of us, one way of dealing with the darkness is to find the light indoors. From late November through December we enter into a time of rich fellowship with friends and family. Candles are lit, seasonal foods are prepared, holiday lights adorn private and public spaces and despite the chill and darkness there is a buzz in the air that can lift our spirits if we pay attention to what is going on around us.  This is to say that we can find the light if we are looking for it.  And we can certainly find the darkness if that becomes our focus.   Walking toward what brings light , contentment and connection is not something that just comes naturally to us like walking and eating.

We actually have to create a discipline to turn toward what brings light into our lives.

 

For example, we all have experiences that bring ugly, painful thoughts and emotions into our lives. We may find ourselves ruminating on this darkness. We may go over and over some painful set of family circumstances until our days and nights are filled with self-preoccupied misery. It is easy to fall into this trap because the darkness tricks us into believing that all the energy we’re putting into these matters will somehow lead us to a solution. Nothing could actually be farther from the truth. This kind of wallowing in the problem just leads to a deepening gloom that shuts out the light of possible ways to get through any particular impasse we face. And so we feel stuck.

 

Christianity and most  of the world’s great religions remind us that if we want to live in the light we have to make choices that take us in that direction. This is where spiritual practices enter the picture. Spiritual practices are the steps we can take to stay focused on the light. They are called practices because they require discipline, commitment and focus.  In order to resist the seduction of negative, life draining thoughts and behaviors we need to find ways to regularly experience  the light of each new day.  Some folks find that reading scripture each morning gets them headed toward the light. Others find  that some easy stretching or yoga followed by quiet meditation helps them begin the day with a lighter spirit. Others find that sitting alone at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee watching the birds at the feeder sets the day up in a hopeful and positive manner. In any case, the point is this . If you want to live in the light and not the darkness, don’t expect this to be just a matter of receiving the light. Living in the light also requires us to make the choice of continuing to seek it. Living in the light requires the act of lighting candles in the dark.  Just one candle can transfigure the darkness.  

 

Frank S. Davis is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church ( U.S.A.).  In addition to his theological training at Yale Divinity School, he holds Master’s and Ph.D. degrees in Psychology from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. Rev. Davis is a Preaching Team Member and Moderator at Woodland Presbyterian Church in Babbitt, MN.  This post is reprinted from a post in the Babbitt Weekly.
 

 

Where the Miracles Are

Can I really trust God? I mean REALLY?

The thought runs through my head, but the words keep changing. “Well, that’s not realistic.”  “Nobody can forgive that.” “No point in trying that again.” “That’s how things always turn out.”

What if, instead, it’s the thoughts themselves that block blessing? What if our smart little busy brains are churning out all sorts of roadblocks to God’s deep will—which is kindness, love and joy?

I do not know what is the best outcome in anything. I never know what SHOULD happen. That’s it— That’s all my wisdom. But it’s a lot, because it means I am not second-guessing God. All my clever plans, all my hard-won life experience and cynicism and sorrow, all of it is just thought-trash. Junk. Messy little packages of worry and doubt from my busy brain.

Instead, I can smile, bless my thoughts and let them go. I can say, “That’s just a thought. I don’t know what was or what will be. I do not know what should be.”  

The great Christian scholar Rev. Richard Rohr says this:  

Whenever I think there’s a perfect pattern, further reading and study reveal an exception. Whenever I want to say “only” or “always,” someone or something proves me wrong. My scientist friends have come up with things like “principles of uncertainty” and dark holes. They’re willing to live inside imagined hypotheses and theories. But many religious folks insist on answers that are always true. We love closure, resolution and, clarity, while thinking that we are people of “faith”! How strange that the very word “faith” has come to mean its exact opposite.

People who have really met the Holy are always humble. It’s the people who don’t know who usually pretend that they do. People who’ve had any genuine spiritual experience always know they don’t know. They are utterly humbled before mystery. They are in awe before the abyss of it all, in wonder at eternity and depth, and a Love, which is incomprehensible to the mind. It is a litmus test for authentic God experience, and is — quite sadly — absent from much of our religious conversation today. My belief and comfort is in the depths of Mystery, which should be the very task of religion.  Click here for Rohr’s discussion.

I meditate because I want to relax into the profound reality that is NOT thought. Trusting God means transformation—Not a new version of my busy brain’s plans, not what everybody thinks would be best, given the situation.

God dances to music more exquisite than anything I can imagine. God offers joy so new that I gasp and weep. It’s an opening that rips through what I think is real. Light pours in and drenches us all.

The key is saying “I don’t know.” I have to surrender to God, let myself fall into God and trust the Divine Emptiness—because when I lift away all my little plans and thoughts, all existence opens to God’s possibilities.

And that’s the miracle.

 

 

A Video for the Worst Day of Your Life

How does the Divine touch us when all is lost?  Here’s a profound, moving 15-minute video by minister Rudy Harst about what happened when he was in a terrible car crash two weeks ago. We are never alone. Everything is known. We are safe, and we are One. Click here to watch it.

Burrowing into Darkness

Things seem a shambles. Outside, I question if democracy is worth it. Fire deaths, atrocities, shootings and massive hardship blare from every screen and hit me like gut punches. Inside, in my close life, the confusions, the missteps pile up and tear at me—Friends with harsh diagnoses, addicted family members, uncertainty, confusion. It feels like my heart, and the world’s, is just broken. A shambles.

Things are turning dark. Yet that’s as it should be. I know this about Fall. All the leaves let go. Hollyhock stalks bend and collapse. Pods open, seeds fall. Mist rises as the lake cools. The wind smells of a neighbor’s morning fire. With the leaves down, I can see the lake. The light is both brighter and darker.

Everything has given up. The broken stalks and bright skies have surrendered to change. Leaves jump in the wind and pile up in corners by stones and under bushes. When I meditate, mornings are black.

There is magic ahead. Rebirth doesn’t happen in April, just as conception doesn’t happen in the delivery room. Rebirth requires conception, and that miracle—and I use the word “miracle” on purpose—needs darkness.  In the womb, in the earth, in life, undreamed-of things burst out like those first tiny cells of an embryo—in darkness, in power, in hope.  

I trust the bare trees, the pumpkins, the chill and the darkness. The hummingbirds and robins left weeks ago. Nuthatches and chickadees peer in at me, wondering about suet. The longest night is coming. I think of bonfires, feasts, tombstones and candles. I think of shattered dreams, despair, tears and death.

I trust winter’s silence. It feels right. Seeds burrow into the earth mother. Conception needs utter darkness. I trust what is hidden, the things I cannot comprehend. There are Holy Secrets that come out of the Divine, and I can’t pretend to understand them. Grace is real.

My thoughts don’t work. I think I know what should or should not happen, but I am wrong. The bare trees and dancing leaves have surrendered to the coming darkness. I follow them and trust.

Every year, every century, dark magic happens again—A light in the darkness. Under the bitterness, seeds lie in the earth. One day their cells change. I’m too small and foolish to know exactly when or how, and that’s okay.

What I trust is the darkness itself—the presence, the awareness, the magic, the love. I am a bare tree branch, a fallow field. Emptiness and silence is what I need. I am a seed. I am potential. I burrow in and trust the holy life force. What’s needed is exactly the darkness. I have to be a seed, not knowing, not planning. I have to be the magic of what might come, the possibility of something I do not understand.

Hope happens. New life pops. The wind turns soft. There’s something new that only the universe could have dreamt up.  An exquisite crocus. Fresh grass. An easy breath. New life. Healing.

So I rest in the darkness and trust God. I am a seed and so are you. The light will come, but not in the ways we expect. All we need to know is that Love holds us close. The darkness is safe and right.

 

The Flash Up Ahead

Life hits hard. Death rips away what’s false, and all I can see is clear light. When someone dies, there’s a flash. I realize—again— that only love matters. I gasp as if lightning had sizzled and lit the night.

I remember being young, walking up the stairs of a red brick church with Mom and Dad. The parents of the dead teenager stand next to her coffin, hugging people, talking. Their eyes shine so that it hurts to look. It’s not the tears. It’s the flash, the clear love, that stuns me.

Her death was foolish. Who would sit on a light boat as it was being towed on a trailer? It was nothing, just a second. One bump.

The brilliance in the eyes of this mother and father blinds me. I look away because I’m young. I can’t look because it finds every crack in me. 

When I was young I hadn’t learned that love itself is bigger than happy or tragic, good or bad. It’s bigger than any label or word. It’s everything, like the sky beyond the clouds. It’s awareness itself, love calling to love, God outside of time.

Daily life and thoughts hide the sky, even though we yearn to see it. We want hope, but we don’t know how to find it.

Death’s work is so strange. It tears us open. It rips the clouds away so that the sky beyond, the awareness that is love, is just obvious. Undeniable. The flash, the vision of love, shocks us so completely that, even in our childishness and our denial, we fall to our knees.

When I was young, I didn’t know that being on my knees—knowing that I love and am loved—is the whole reason for life. It doesn’t matter if I’m on my knees to button someone’s coat or kneeling at a funeral.

I wish I could say that meditating taught me this, but it didn’t. Pain, loss and despair taught me, and they were harsh about it.

What meditation taught me was that what I thought was flashing off and on—the love, the light, forever, peace, kindness—shines as a beacon, steady, never flashing, never dimming. In silence as I meditated, I learned to sense the deeper reality that is God. I learned how to see the sky that the clouds hide.

Now, as an old woman, I’m always searching for those flashes, the moments when God is undeniable, when only love exists. Each one is priceless. I gather each one close and roll it in my fingers because I know this is the only thing that matters.

Here’s one when my baby sleeps on my chest and smiles in her sleep. Here’s another when my love holds me close and doesn’t let go. Here’s a tiny white coffin. Here’s a girl skating alone on a lagoon, a toddler singing in the bathtub, my grandmother combing her soft white hair, and a teenager practicing Shakespeare. “As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.”

What I know now is that in love, there is no time at all. There is no before and after. At this funeral, the brilliance in the parents’ eyes is the exact same instant as when they danced in the living room with that baby girl, when they combed out her snarls and braided her hair, when they daubed baking soda on her chicken pox, when they taught her to parallel park.

Victor Hugo said, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Yes, it’s a cliché. But above the sentiment is the open sky itself. No storm can touch it.

And so I gather my flashes and smile. This is my life. I look into your eyes, and it’s your life too. You reach for me.

It’s the movement between us that is sacred. It’s our dance, the flash of light on faces, the light of one kind glance, the shape of hands touching that is the divine spark.

I stay on my knees now, knowing there are flashes all around me. This is my holy place. This is how I worship. I gaze into the flashes and never look away.

 

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]