It’s no secret anymore. The holidays are a stressful time for almost everyone. And of course the most recent stressor is the fact that now we are supposed to get through it all without feeling any stress! How are you doing? Before going further, I think it’s important to point out the difference between the holiday blues and holiday stress. According to psychologist Mark Gorkin, holiday blues is what we feel when we can’t be with family and friends who play a significant role in our life. Holiday stress is when we have to be with them!
According to the American Psychiatric Association, 69% of us are stressed out because of a perceived lack of time, 69% because of a perceived lack of money, and 51% because of the whole gift giving/gift getting requirement. One of those people was an elderly man who finally decided not to try to figure out what presents to buy his grandchildren, especially in this high tech age. Instead he wrote them each a check. In their card he wrote, Merry Christmas, Grandpa. P.S. Buy your own gift. He thought that they all seemed a bit distant and remote during the holidays and this gnawed at him into the new year. Then one day as he was straightening out his den he found the stack of checks he had forgotten to include in his grandchildren’s cards.
On a more solemn note, a good friend of mine called me earlier this week because he needed to talk to someone about his family. He was 25 when he came out to them as gay, and now at 44 years old, he is still struggling with their lack of acceptance and understanding. And while that is an all year struggle, the holidays tend to create more obligations for togetherness while promote idealized images of family that can leave us feeling both frustrated and flawed.
In the Beginning
Since so much of the commotion centers on the birth of a baby named Jesus, I thought we might look at the actual story. The Gospel of Matthew begins…
The book of the generation of Jesus Christ,
The son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob,
And Jacob begat Judah and his brothers,
And Judah begat Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,
And Perez begat Hezron,
And Hezron begat Ram…
And on and on for 52 generations. OK, it’s kinda long and it’s kinda boring. But it’s interesting because each of those family members add a story to Jesus’ life, just as each of our family members add a story to ours – something that helped shape us, for good or bad, into who we are.
Matthew begins right where we all begin – having been begot by someone or another. And in the begetting and all of the stuff that comes afterward – attention, neglect, permissiveness, punishment, praising, scolding, laughing, crying, screaming, silence – we come to be who we are. Who begot us? Not only at conception, but as we continue to grow?
Adorned with Relationships
This week I saw a gorgeous Christmas tree. It was the perfect tree in shape, color, texture, even smell. I complimented the owner and she thanked me. But then instead of talking about the tree, she started talking about how it was decorated. And in this regard, the tree also was lovely. A rich and odd assortment of shapes and patterns and colors, some ornaments delicately manufactured, some lovingly crafted by hand. All interwoven with lights and garland and branches and needles. Each carrying with it a story. Together creating a beautiful piece of art.
It seems you and I are a lot like that tree, adorned with a jumbled array of relationships, often more colorful and diverse than any odd assortment of Christmas ornaments. Mismatched and oddly shaped, intertwined with the events in our lives that have brought sorrow and that have brought joy. Each its own complex story. Together shaping us into a beautiful piece of ever changing art. But with one extra complication that the tree doesn’t have to contend with – we don’t have the luxury of putting away the decorations at the end of the season. Nope – they just keep clinging to us so that we’re stuck with them all year round.
Oh, we can ignore them or pretend they’re something they never were. But once a year at Christmas time when there is so much focus on family, we often experience a profound sense of stress as we struggle with the stories of our life.
Families in Conflict
Of course, in conflicted relationships, someone is usually identified as the problem – maybe even you or me. When a family is overwhelmed by prolonged stress and anxiety it usually will identify the problem as a child, as the marriage, or as the spouse who has developed alcoholism, depression or some other symptom. But when one person or one relationship is labeled the problem, other issues become clouded from view. The greater our anxiety, the greater the tunnel vision and the more likely we are to ensure that nothing will change.
Because in the end we can’t change problems, we can only change our self. All of us have ways in which we normally interact with others. We may pursue or distance ourselves, fight or give in, overfunction or underfunction. And whatever our normal style, we will do it that much more when conflict and stress get elevated. Stress makes us reactive. So the answer to stress is to simply remain calm and rational. Of course, it isn’t quite as easy as that.
Therapists and counselors are quick to point out that our reactions have deep roots. As we have grown we have been formed and shaped by our experiences and our relationships. Our reactions and the things we react to are an important – but not unchangeable – aspect of who we have become. And who we have become is important. All that we are and do has come about for a very good reason and serves an important purpose. But sometimes those very important traits outlast their usefulness and we find that we need to let some of them go, cull some of them out, prune some of them off, if we are to be healthy and whole.
If our goal is to be less reactionary, more capable of handling stress, and more effective at healthy relationships we always have to start with our self. This means identifying both our strengths and our vulnerabilities, being clear about our beliefs, values, and priorities and then living them. And it challenges us to address painful and difficult issues and relationships that we would often rather ignore; to stay emotionally connected to significant others – including our first family – even when things get pretty stressful.
Whether you believe the way they tell it or not, you gotta feel sorry for poor old Joseph of the Jesus birth story. Now here is a man under stress! Can you imagine the tension when Mary and Joe get together with the in-laws – on either side? Can you appreciate the predicament at work here? Who would look forward to a family reunion with that kind of dynamic in place? I know I’d be looking for an excuses to get out of it…
But according to psychologist Harriet Lerner, “Slowing moving toward more connectedness rather than more distance with members of our own kinship group is one of the best insurance policies for bringing a more solid self to other relationship.” And she says, “The degree to which we are distant and cut off from our first family is directly related to the amount of intensity and reactivity we bring to other relationships.”
Of course no matter how successful we are at uncovering and healing old wounds, at changing patterns, at recovering our true self… No matter how calm and relaxed we become – things will go wrong, unexpected events will occur, life circumstances will suddenly change. Divorce, disease, death. We will discover that there is much we do not and cannot control.
We cannot avoid stressful events in our life, but we can learn not to respond with more stress – by becoming fearful, anxious and depressed. And we do that not by following the example of a baby still in need of a self, but of a grown up Jesus who has become fully himself.
Some Things We Cannot Change
Jesus and other teachers throughout the ages have repeatedly told their followers not to worry, not to be anxious. But they never paint an idealized picture of the world. Instead they reveal to us that death is certain, that life is fragile, that dangers abound, and that human beings are full of limitations. And in revealing to us our powerlessness to change these certainties, they tells us not to try to do the impossible. For it is in learning to let go of that which we cannot control that we finally find peace and the ability to live in the/this moment.
There is a Zen meditation koen called “Tale of the Unfortunate Traveler.” A man was crossing a field when he encountered a tiger. He ran and the tiger chased him. Coming to a ledge, he grabbed a vine and swung himself down the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to see another tiger waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Then two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!
What can we do when there is nothing we can do?
Living Life Fully
Life is often painful. Every day people like Joseph and you and I are required to do things no one should have to do – to endure things no one should have to endure. We can let life thrash us as we become increasing agitated and stressed out or we can take steps to identify the source of our deepest pain in order that it be healed.
My friend cannot change his family. None of us can change anyone else. Nor can we change the inevitable stresses that come as an every day part of our living and our dying. This realization, accepting our own powerlessness, is a profoundly spiritual state – and one that leads us to inner freedom, and inner peace. It is in accepting death that life becomes more abundant.
That Christmas tree I mentioned? It has been cut down and is already dying. Department store trees, on the other hand, never die. And they are amazing to behold. All lights and glitter. Perfectly symmetrical, color coordinated, cold, artificial masterpieces of human design. My wish is that our lives look more like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. A few branches broken, needles dropping, ornaments held together with tape and Elmer’s glue … an honest tree, a genuine tree, that has know life and known it fully. That tree is the most beautiful one of all.