sufferingcelebrating in december

blaring from my speakers right now: “it’s the holiday season, with the whoop de doo, and hickory dock...”  here’s what i want to know: what the heck is hickory dock and why in the world do we associate whoop de doo with this month of dark, short, waiting days and expectations that are, frequently, seriously out of touch with reality.

this is not an easy month for many. lots of thirty day periods of time are hard, but this one is difficult on steroids. everywhere we look we see depictions of boxes wrapped with perfect bows, families gathered around tables heaping with food, or trees anchored by piles of gifts. whether we celebrate hanukkah, christmas, kwanza, or no religious or cultural holidays at all, it’s impossible to escape the pictures of shiny happy people all around us. in addition, we face expectations. whether from our selves or our communities, there are matters that we are expected to attend to. year end giving, the “tipping” of those that serve us, hostess gifts to plan for, concerts to attend, holiday gift exchanges, ugly sweater contests, and the sending and receiving of cards that nearly takes us out emotionally every. single. year. on top of all this, the traffic is worse than ever and everyone’s nerves are shot. at times it barely feels worth it to leave the house.

at the same time, however, even in our most private of residences, we have our insides to attend to. december doesn’t pull us away from our sadnesses, stressors, or circumstances any more than a wedding ring assures that we’ll never be lonely. life is just not that simple. my buddhist friends have a mantra that i absolutely love. “may all beings be free from unnecessary suffering.” if only i (or the calendar) could make this happen.

while it is impossible for me to discern necessary from unnecessary suffering, it is easy for me to know that suffering of all kinds feels especially weighty to the person who feels heavy while the rest of the world appears to be feeling whoop de doo and hickory dockish. as this person it is easy to feel like the “debbie downer” (please accept my apology all of you debbie’s out there...the colloquialism is unfair but so effective. i’ll work on coming up with a new one soon). it’s easy to assume that you are alone and that everyone else feels exactly how they look: happy. i promise you that this is not true.

so, what are we to do? how can we honor the needs and wishes of all people this month? how can we make space for celebration and suffering at our communal tables? perhaps we can do this by examining our own expectations, making intentional choices about how to spend our selves (with our resources of time, energy, and tangible “things”), and to support and respect the same process in others. 

i have come to believe that our expectations of our selves and others have much to do with how content or discontent we feel in life. often these suppositions have come to be over time and live largely outside of our awareness. our family did things this way so we must keep that going. our calendar reflects many commitments so we must keep them. and on and on and on. even still, these expectations dictate our assessments and assumptions of how we (and others) are doing. we expect ourselves to be competent and successful by standards we may not even be consciously aware of or in full agreement with. we expect a month filled with gloom or overflowing joy. we expect public spaces to be miserable or transporting. we expect others to forget/overlook us or to honor us. we expect, we expect, we expect.

these expectations must be brought into our conscious awareness in order for us to live intentional lives. when they are not part of our consciousness, suppositions end up running the show and operate outside of coordination with reality in any way.  c.s. lewis addressed this well when he said, “it comes the very moment you wake up each morning. all your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. and the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.” 

to live well through this month of strugglecelebration we must let that other larger, stronger, quieter part of our life come flowing in. we must make space to get still and let our expectations surface. we must be willing and able to say to our selves, “i wish this and yet reality is this.” “i hoped for this and another thing is what i am really living with.” this provides a new opportunity to make conscious choices about whether we live toward expectations or put them aside. it also allows us to welcome our honest selves which live with complexity regarding the nature of both our suffering and our celebrating and to care for our selves with a keen eye to what is healthy over what is expected. suffering and celebration can both exist together. one does not negate the other. in fact, the two together make for a much more beautiful picture. when we accept this our suffering no longer presents a threat to our celebrating. when we follow our self examination with a curiosity about the expectations of others we no longer have to feel threatened by their suffering or celebration either. this is true grace and community where there is space for each person where ever they are emotionally. at this kind of table there is also space for movement and change and flex between states of being.

the phrase “comfort and joy” has become synonymous with the month of december in many parts of the world. my thinking is that the need for comfort implies that some sort of discomfort has been experienced. could it be that the deepest joy can only be experienced when one has known the loneliness of the lack of it in themselves or others? perhaps a gift of suffering is that it might eventually lead us to joy. for many this month it’s the “eventually” part that is so isolating and difficult.

mixed in with my holiday music this year i have included a song (click here to hear it) that was introduced to me on a particularly excruciating week this fall. it takes a well known stanza about joy and turns it on its side and resonated deeply with the pain that i was experiencing when i first heard it. i believe that this is the pain of many. i have the song in my play list because i want to remember that suffering is a part of this month of celebrating for all of us humans. i want this close to my mind and heart so that i can do all that i can to be aware of my own places of suffering, do what i need to seek comfort, and allow in whatever joy i can (if i can) and to offer space for this process to others. 

in closing i offer you my mantra for the next two weeks and invite you to join me in using it:
may we all make space for suffering as it is necessary and for joy as it is possible.
may we offer this same kind of space to those we encounter.
may we never give up searching for peace, love, joy, and goodness (which includes pains of many kinds and the intentional choosing of what to expect of ourselves). (click here to get the “peace, love, joy, and goodness” mantra stuck beautifully in your head)

the work of aaron strumpel has been deeply meaningful to me for quite some time. he recently released a holiday e.p. with a collaborating artist and, to my absolute glee, this artist (latifah phillips of page cxvi) is the musician who recorded the arrangement of “joy” that has been the soundtrack of my fall. i cannot recommend their work more excitedly. please check out their individual “presences” and their holiday e.p., titled “heck ya, the halls” here.

if you’re looking for a new christmas (and i know that some of you do not celebrate christmas so hope you’ll look beyond the references to the deeper meanings i’m suggesting above) recording i also want to recommend eclectic christmas (click here). i attended their show last night and was blown away by their sensitivity to the pain and suffering that exists for many this time of year. way to go nate, aaron, nolan, nathaniel, missy, and frank!

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