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.

 

 

5 Steps to Healing and Peace

Meditation helps us heal. It’s a healthy, smart thing to do. It eases pain by changing our bodies and by changing how we manage thought. Doctors know that patients who meditate feel less pain, and psychologists know that meditation helps people handle stress better.

I sit down to meditate. I turn off my phone, close the door, light a candle. I sit in silence with my eyes closed, taking slow deep breaths.

So what’s the big deal?

1.“I can watch my thoughts go by. I don’t have to be inside them.”

When we begin to sit in meditation, thoughts crowd in on us. In beginning meditation, the very first thing we learn is that it’s okay to just watch thoughts and release them.

This is new. Since we were babies, we believed that our thoughts were what’s real. In fact, we think that our thoughts are who we are.

Thoughts seem to have us by the throat. But instead we can just release them. It’s as if we are lying at the bottom of a river watching thoughts from a distance. It’s a huge idea. What a relief!

2. “My thoughts are a bigger force in my life than I realized. But I can manage them.”

When we see how tough it is to release thoughts, we comprehend their power. On one hand, it’s a huge relief to know it’s okay to release them. But on the other hand, it’s not easy.

Just seeing thoughts as optional is huge. But sitting and trying to relax without thinking shows us something even bigger:  Thought is powerful!  

Thoughts push us around. Thoughts are bullies. Certain thoughts are the very worst of our bad habits. “I’ll never be good enough.”  “Life’s a bitch and then we die.” “Let’s face it—No one really cares.” “Nobody knows if I’m alive or dead.”  Allowing certain thoughts to run unchecked is one way many people abuse themselves. And it’s emotionally unhealthy.

Instead, it’s possible to harness the power of thought. Thoughts can be healthier and more healing.

But first you have to realize how powerful thought is. 

Thought is…
  • A powerful oppressor that we allow to hurt us;
  • A punishment we use against ourselves and others;
  • A tool for caring and kindness;
  • A way to manifest new goodness.

 

Let’s go back to lying on the bottom of the river, watching as our thoughts float above on the surface. What’s the big deal?

It’s that “I” am not up there being the thoughts. There’s a separate reality that is me, that is NOT thought.

Wow–Another huge insight! There’s more to what’s real than what I think. And this reality, where I am separate from thoughts, is healing, peaceful, and simple. This is the Child of God.

3. “I am not my thoughts. My thoughts are not my identity.”

I see that I am more than my thoughts. No matter what my thoughts are—good or bad—there’s a part of me separate from my thoughts.

More huge growth—My deepest identity is separate from the crazy circus characters of my thoughts.  Many of us have thoughts that repeat again and again. Others of us have thoughts we hate so much that we would rather die than have people find out about them.

Meditation soothes that shame because we see that our thoughts are NOT our essence.  Thoughts are like clouds that hide the sky. They come and go but they are not the sky itself.

In meditation we learn how to watch the sky instead of the clouds that come and go.

4.  “I’m in charge of my thoughts. I am not a victim of my thoughts.”

We can use thought to heal, and this is a wonderful life skill. Once we recognize that thoughts can be bullies, we can step in and take charge.

Here are three traditional ways to use thought for good:

  • Visualization: There are thousands of traditional meditations in which we visualize good images. For example, to help someone heal, we can visualize warm bright light soaking into their bodies. For ourselves, we can visualize the safety of a hidden glen or an angel’s protection. Here’s a great link to get started with visualization.
  • Affirmations: We can create positive thought patterns to replace the destructive ones. For example, instead of thinking “Bad things always happen to me,” we can tell ourselves, “I am worthy of joy.”  For many, this thought itself heals. Here’s a link to a great article on healing affirmations.
  • Guided Meditations: There are thousands of meditations available online in which a teacher uses images to guide us to a healthier truth. For example, there are guided meditations for healing kidney stones or for healing depression. Here’s an excellent link to a guided meditation for anxiety.

5. “I’ve discovered an openness apart from thought.”

After we’ve practiced meditation for a while, we discover a wonderful new reality. We don’t stop thinking—but we’re no longer trapped inside our own thought patterns. We’re comfortable with watching our thoughts from a distance—In fact, we love the relief we get when we sit to meditate.

For many people, this is an opening to God. Many Christians call this spaciousness the “Christ Consciousness.” In this state, it’s easier to feel God’s love and to receive God’s healing.

Thought is not true or false. It just is.

Thought is not who I am. I am a Child of God, no matter what my thoughts.

Thought is not what is real.

What I know is this: God’s love is what is real. It is forever, and it is my essence.