Christmas

A lovely thing about Christmas is that it’s compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all go through it together

A Christmas Curmudgeon  

Driving home yesterday, I spilled my large cup of Starbucks all over my lap causing me to swerve slightly, it seemed like inches, into the lane of a grouchy driver to my right: an eighty year old guy with a face like a overdone waffle wearing thick glasses who rolled down his window and let out a shrill scream, “Merry Christmas to you too, buddy!!”  Wow, I guess he had a tough day at the Mall!  I had a good laugh telling my friends about it later.

Mark Twain, who must have crashed into a few horse-drawn buggies in a dirt Yuletide parking lot, once wrote:

“The approach of Christmas brings harassment and dread to many excellent people. They have to buy a cart-load of presents, and they never know what to buy to hit the various tastes; they put in three weeks of hard and anxious work, and when Christmas morning comes they are so dissatisfied with the result, and so disappointed that they want to sit down and cry. Then they give thanks that Christmas comes but once a year.”

The Holidays are tough for many people.

While Christmas and the New Year come but once a year, it’s really a month long reverie of parties, music, eating and spending time with friends and family. During this stretch of time, Christmas isn’t so great for lots of people and there are good reasons for it.

Despondency is common during the holidays for many.  The most famous example of this is none other than George Bailey in the timeless classic, It’s a Wonderful Life.  I believe so many people relate to George because he’s the archetype of a good man who is befallen by undeserved tragedy – the prospect of financial ruin – and learns through an angel what his life would have been for others if he’d never been born.  George develops a new found appreciation for what’s really important, the love of family and friends.  He leaves his guardian angel, returns home only to find his family heartily welcoming his return and, because George has helped so many in his lifetime, they come through by helping him with enough money to solve his financial crisis.

Maybe most of us aren’t on a precipice of financial ruin, but there are many parties, celebrations and gatherings that require the spending for food and drink. This creates the need to put the hands deep in the pocket, both for gifts and to pay for the restaurants and bars. The temptations such as food, the cocktails, purchases and gifts is high and leads many people to feel stress for the consequences of their actions (gain more weight, headache, depression, overdrafts). These effects remain after the end of the holidays and cause even more stress and depression.

Everyone who struggles in today’s economy is George Bailey; stressed and wondering if they can support their families and provide a happy Christmas.  This can take a toll on many.

They may be lonely, whether surrounded by loved ones or not.  For those struggling with depression or just profound loneliness, Christmas can be so tough.  They’re expected by others to be Merry and when they’re not, they are prodded to “Cheer up.” That’s one of the confounding things for those who have never experienced depression:  that you could possibly feel so down when surrounded by circumstances that appear, to those with no reference point to understand, so great. But, there it is.  Even when not told by others to snap out of their funk, folks who are lonely and depressed feel this way because the holidays trigger some memory of loss, of loved ones not there that should be there or their inability to pull themselves out of a down mood.

There can also be family turmoil during the holidays. Usually people want to gather the whole family together for Christmas, but everyone has plans and sometimes there is conflict because people prefer to spend the holidays in their own home. There is also the possibility that people have high expectations these days from other people. People might expect perfect conditions with expensive gifts and positive response by all. This is not usually the case and this increases the chances to feel disappointed and the risk of sadness and depression are increased.

People are too pooped to party. One of the main reasons that the holidays bring with them intense stress is that suddenly there are many requirements and people have to do many things in a short period of time. Even when the activities are basically pleasant and enjoyable, they are a change from the daily routine that people are used to, and this situation is pushing the person to do more things than it can normally do. Shopping, the need for finding gifts, participation in various social events and obligations, the preparation of Christmas dishes and other sweets all create stress and fatigue.

The Spiritual Dimension of Christmas

While there are a lot of things that can bring us down this time a year, we all need to remember that, just like an elevator, there are plenty of things to bring us up: small kindnesses that fall on us like snow throughout a day: children with wool caps on running across the street with mittens while a volunteer crossing guard swooshes them along, someone says “Thanks” or “You’re welcome” and really meaning it, a Christmas song plays and takes you back to a sweet childhood memory of the holidays or you just plain old feel the ineffaceable lift of your spirits being part of the a time during the year where there’s some sort of fellowship, a sense that we all are part of God’s family, and wish each other well.

Because I am Catholic (a very liberal one, mind you), the holidays offer another gift to me – a sense of Joy.  I have always found the month leading up to Christmas enjoyable, what my church calls Advent, in some sense a salve on the short days and chapped skin from too much cold wind that hurdle through Buffalo salt covered streets.

I am never preachy about my faith (I don’t care for it when others do so about theirs’) because I feel there are many paths to God.  But I do feel it’s important to seep yourself in whatever your spiritual tradition leads you to be a better, more kind and decent human being.

In my faith, Christmas is a month of anticipation culminating in the birth of Jesus; the seminal event in human history where God intervenes in human time to send his only Son to save a broken and lost humanity from itself. This belief is expressed so beautifully in the Old Testament by the prophet Isaiah who writes:

 “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace.”

My parish priest, captured some of the mysterious dimension of Jesus’ birth when he wrote:

“Contemplate, with me, the mystery that is Christmas. Like all mysteries, it bears innumerable levels of meaning and of presence. The core truth is that God, in person of Jesus, takes a specific place, Mary’s womb, and time (c. 4 B.C.E.), and becomes one with humanity. It stretches the imagination to think that God would so choose to be identified with us that a transcendent/immanent communion issues forth through a simple woman, Mary, as “the Christ,” the anointed one. Nothing in the story of human creation before this event/birth, a recorded history of c. 6,000 years and an unrecorded history of probably 500,000 years, prepares us for this wonder.”

Thousands of years have passed since Isaiah’s psalm, we all still walk in darkness and all are in need of a “great light” to illuminate our steps as we walk through life.  There’s a yearning in all beings to be guided by something or Someone bigger than their limited self.

For me, the birth of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, brings a profound sense of hope into the world; hope that we all can grow as a people and know what it is like to feel the light of God’s love.

Coping with the Holidays

Be Generous and Mindful of those less fortunate to you.  It is funny how years later particular events stick in your mind.  One Christmas Season, a homeless man well-known to hang out in front of a coffee shop I used to go to, came inside.  He would do this on occasion and ask for money in tattered clothes and mangled hair. His name was Wesley.

I later learned that he was a Vietnam veteran who suffered from PTSD. I had given him change on occasion, but didn’t feel like it that morning. He asked, “Do you have any money?”  I said, somewhat brusquely, “No, I do not.” He then paused for a moment, a look of kind concern in his eyes, and said softly, “Do you need some.” This man with so little offered me what little he had and in doing so taught me the true heart of Christmas.

Remember the holiday season does not banish reasons for feeling sad or lonely.  There is room for these feelings to be present, even if the person chooses not to express them. But like all feelings, they pass. It might just be that the holidays, with all its high expectations of happiness, intensify these feelings.  Just hang in there.

Have a little faith in the goodness of life. We can all get weary from the drubbing we get at Christmas in our too materialistic, too focused on stuff society.  But let that not dampen your spirit too much because beneath it all, there’s simply too much goodness in this world to appreciate all around you.

The humorist Garrison Keillor wrote:

 “To know and to serve God, of course, is why we’re here, a clear truth, that, like the nose on your face, is near at hand and easily discernible but can make you dizzy if you try to focus on it hard. But a little faith will see you through. What else will do except faith in such a cynical, corrupt time? When the country goes temporarily to the dogs, cats must learn to be circumspect, walk on fences, sleep in trees, and have faith that all this woofing is not the last word. What is the last word, then? Gentleness is everywhere in daily life, a sign that faith rules through ordinary things: through cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers, through sports, music and books, raising kids — all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through. Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people.”

God bless you all and have a Merry Christmas.

Turning 50

Because time itself is like a spiral, something special happens on your birthday each year: The same energy that God invested in you at birth is present once again – Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson

I just turned 50 a month ago.

My beautiful wife threw a birthday party for me at my in-laws beach house on the shores of Lake Erie, about fifteen miles from my fair city of Buffalo, New York, also known by locals as The City of No Illusions, the origins of which remain unknown to me.

You get a real sense of your age when all the tunes cranked out by the live band at your birthday gala are all from the sixties and seventies. No Lady GaGa tracks at this hoopla, but lots of gag gifts for the old geezer.

There’s Something About the Number

There is something momentous about turning 50. We all crunch numbers, don’t we. Those who have joined the 50 club seek a sort of mathematical revelation about its meaning: A half-century of 200 changes of the seasons, 600 full moons that have passed through the night skies from my boyhood until now.

It’s been two years since I’ve blogged about my 30th High School Return.  As I drove to that event, it was like a time tunnel back to my younger self as Bachman Turner Overdrive wailed “Taking Care of Business” as I barreled down Route 78, my thinning hair flying with the breeze kicking in through my car’s window.

My dad died at age fifty-six, about six year older than I am now.  That was over 30 years ago.  I wonder what he thought about turning 50.  I will never know.

Obama, George Clooney, Boy George and Eddie Murphy all heard the fifty gun salute this year.  Fame does not delay the passing of the years, though good makeup may.

The acclaimed poet, Billy Collins, on the occasion of his 50th Birthday, wrote:

But I keep picturing the number, round and daunting:

I drop a fifty-dollar bill on a crowed street,

I carry a fifty-pound bag of wet sand on my shoulders.

I see fifty yearlings leaping a fence in the field.

I fan the five decades before me like a poker hand.

Taking Stock

We all look backwards at 50 through the rearview mirror. We take stock of the climb from diapers to degrees, from backpacks to briefcases, from youthful meanderings to mid-life muddling.

We all remember our parents at this ripe age. They seemed so old, didn’t they? We look at ourselves in the mirror and, seemingly overnight, we have become . . . well . . . old.

My hair recedes like the waves going back out to sea, my joints crack and my energy flags around 9:30 at night. Warm milk? Not necessary as my AARP (I just got my unsolicited card in the mail) brain softly whispers to me, “Goodnight Dan”.

Life has brought plenty of trouble, pain and suffering to all of us by 50; curve balls, losses and betrayals of all types. In the balance, it’s also graced us with unadulterated joy, irony, whimsy, mischief and love. We are all challenged to learn from the negative and practice gratitude for the many blessing that have been bestowed on us and those we care about it.

I savor the words of Dag Hammarskjold, former Secretary General of the United Nations, from his book Markings, “For all that has been – Thanks. For all that shall be – Yes.”

There is a grace that comes at 50 that I didn’t have at 30 or 40; a sense of being at home in my own skin. My bones, like the roots of a mature tree in an old-growth forest, have sunk deep into the rich, brown soil. Like all people, I’ve weathered many storms. While I know that there are sure to be more to come, I have faith that I’ll still be standing after they’ve pass, that the barometric pressure will rise and that I’ll be walking in the sun again.

We hope by age 50 that we’ve becoming wiser. That in taking stock of our lives at the three-quarter turn of the track, we are able to distill something essential about how to live a good life.

True Grit

I think there’s some grit that comes at the half-century mark. We have less tolerance of others’ bullshit and, hopefully, our own. Having lived long enough, we know the truth even if we can’t articulate it. I admire people who can tell the truth with wit, irony, humility and a sense of decency. They don’t belittle others, nor are they arrogant or closed-minded about contrarian views. I always walk away from such people enlightened by such people and marvel that in speaking their own truth they give permission for others to speak theirs as well.

Maybe few of us tell the truth all the time. So don’t be so hard on yourself. But bites and pieces of it well chewed, like my grandmother’s sweet potato pie, make for good digestion.

Garrision Keillor, of A Prairie Home Companion fame, wrote in Things to Do When You Turn 50:

“Start telling the truth. In small doses at first and then gradually build up to one out of three, a decent batting average. When you’re young, you’re scared, you’re trying to wend your way through the trees and not get shot at, you’re trying to stay on the warm side of the various big cheeses in your life, you’re wanting to be the good guy who everybody loves, not the jerk with the big mouth. But when you hit 50, you’re entering a new passage of life in which you can say what you really think.”

The Speed of Time

We all look forward to events on the horizons of our lives. For a guy like me that just turned 50, it’s retirement sometime in the not so distant future and a day when I won’t be father to a 12 year old daughter, but to a twenty-something woman walking down the aisle with her sixty-something dad.

As you head into the fifty-something territory, others of the same age spontaneously lament and wax that time is moving more quickly the older you get. This conversation can take place with perfect strangers at Starbucks.  I sense that it might be okay to have this middle-aged banter with someone because I can usually tell their approximate age by looking at them: thinning hair, a slightly craggy face and the look in their eyes that they’ve known just how tough life can be.

There is a recognition of our finitude, that time is precious, that we don’t have forever to take running leaps towards our dreams.

Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Computers, spoke to a Stanford graduating class as their commencement speaker in 2005.

Shortly before then, he has been diagnosed, treated and recovered from pancreatic cancer, a cancer that would take his life some six years later. Not mincing words, he told the class that we will all die. This wasn’t meant to be morbid, he told them. But a recognition that time is precious and not to be squandered.  Our mortality gives us the motivation to find out what we love to do and do it.

Americans often associate this with finding a job they love. No doubt a noble endeavor. Yet most people do not find a job they love and often toil at average paying jobs that bring only a modicum of happiness, if any at all. But they labor on supporting themselves and their families seeking refuge in the solace of forests, a great book, a ball game and in making their spouse and children happy.

Much wisdom can be culled from our years of living to 50. We learn to see what’s really important and what is, by comparison, trivial at best. More than anything, I know this much is true: the decency and dignity with which we carry ourselves everyday trumps everything else that happens to us.

We All Have Choices

We all have choices and we need to be reminded of this over and over. Life will spare no one suffering. Some of us by mid-life will have suffered grievously: the loss of a spouse or loved one to cancer, the undeserved loss of a job and means to support oneself or, as I’ve written at some length before, episodes of depression.

But in my life time, I’ve learned that suffering does not have the final say. That we do have a large say about what suffering means to us and our relationship to it.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, writes in his book, Deeper than Words:

“Our human dignity hinges on the right use of freedom. The converse is the abuse of freedom. Fearing that, should we then want freedom to be eliminated so as to get rid of suffering? No freedom, no love; no love, no meaning; the worst possible suffering: meaningless. The only way off this dead-end road lies in the opposite direction love can give meaning even to suffering – and so overcome it.”

Yes, our life, if it is to have true meaning, is finally to be used to love and serve others. For when we pass, we will not be remembered in others’ hearts so much for our accomplishments, but for the love we have given and shared with others. You can bet on that.

The Dead Zone Of Depression

There is a zone in a depressed person’s life where nothing seems to happen — except the pain of the absence of everything. 

Such anguish is so overwhelming that every other concern is squashed in its wake.  Our capacity for willful actions seems to be gone; we can’t “figure it out.”  We are stuck.

I have learned a lot about the zone over the years and how to handle it.  It’s really like surfing a giant wave.  To handle these waves, you study them and prepare yourself for when the next big one rolls in.

When I feel I’m entering a Dead Zone, I start a deliberate and kind conversation with myself that is practiced and rehearsed.  I don’t let the toxic voice of depression drown me out.  It’s important to empower ourselves in whatever ways we can during these times because depression will lead you to falsely conclude that you’re helpless to lift your dark mood.  This conclusion is one of the central tenets of depression; one of its main “themes”.  We need to create – and we can – different and healthier themes for our lives.

Start with a three by five index card.  Use it to create your own deliberate and kind script of themes for yourself that day.  Here’s is an example of what I had written on one of my cards:

— This depression isn’t forever, it will pass.

— I have handled it in the past, I will handle it now.

— Get out of my head – don’t sit around and ruminate.

I usually write a new card out every morning.  When depression is absent (and there are long periods of time when it is), the theme of the card might be more celebratory or grateful:

— I appreciate all of the goodness in my life.

— Thank you God for all of the wonderful people you’ve put in my life.

— I am happy that I am not experiencing depression today.

Try this for awhile and see if it helps you. Don’t wait until you are in the zone of depression to construct the cards because your thinking during such times will be distorted.  Doing this is a healthy and self-empowering step that you can take today.

The Weight of Advice

Each of us is a Dear Abby to the world. We dish out advice and opinions whether asked for or not; me included! Much of this is harmless; some necessary and kind. Then there’s the stuff we dole out without knowing what the hell we’re talking about. Where we should tread carefully, we plod along.

For better or for worse, there’s tremendous power in words. When we are vulnerable – as we are during a depression – the critical or misguided words of others take on the ring of gospel. Some may blame us for our depression in a ploy to get us to snap out of it. In one poll, 54% of Americans said that they thought of depression as a “moral weakness”.

Years ago, when I first told my four law partners that I was diagnosed with depression and would need to take time off, they sat there stunned. After a moment of awkward silence, one partner said, “What in the world do you have to be depressed about? You’ve got a great job, wife, family and friends. What do you need, a vacation?” This is an all too common response. His school of thought would argue that it was a lack of gratefulness that was at the root of my distress. Carried to its logical (or illogical) conclusion, we have control over our depressed state and if we only try harder by thinking positive thoughts, it will all go away.

In the book, Unholy Ghosts: Writers on Depression, author Susanna Kaysen says:

“The Failure of Will theory is popular with people who are not depressed. Get out and take your mind off yourself, they say. You’re too self-absorbed. This is just about the stupidest thing you can say to a depressed person, and it is said every day to depressed people all over this country. And if it isn’t that, it’s, Shut up and take your Prozac. These attitudes are contradictory. Conquer Your Depression and Everything Can Be Fixed by the Miracle of Science presuppose opposite explanations of the problem. One blames character, the other neurotransmitters. They are often thrown at the sufferer in sequence: Get out and do something, and if that doesn’t work, take pills. Sometimes they’re used simultaneously: You won’t take those pills because you don’t WANT to do anything about your depression, i.e. Failure of Will.”

These observations capture some of the angst – and yes, anger – of depressives. When I was struggling with other’s judgments about my depression, I thought, “What do I have to do to be worthy of their mercy?” In retrospect, it wasn’t a question of worthiness, but ignorance. Some people (friends, family and business associates) will never be able to overcome the inertia of their own ignorance. They’re not bad people. It’s just the way life is. And we have to learn to be okay with that. But then there are others. These precious souls – and there don’t have to be lots of them – who have our back. They truly want to understand and help. Mother Teresa was once asked by a hard-boiled reporter what God expects of humanity. I think the reporter expected some stock answer. Mother Teresa, in all her gracious dignity, said that all God really wants from us to be is a “loving presence” to one another. There are those in our lives who want to be that presence to us. Give them the chance to be that light.

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