Or Else What? Finding Your Own Answer To Holiday Overwhelm

[singlepic id=299 w=320 h=240 float=center] It seems to me that there's this game we play around the holidays. We somehow feel obligated to replay the old tapes of the past, gathering together in the same ways, repeating the same "traditions", whether or not they still work for us.

The result? A clenching of the jaw, a tensing of our shoulders, a knotted up feeling in our stomach, as we enter this "joyous" holiday season. Some of us might even roll our eyes without knowing it when we say the word "family".

Since all the messages around us are shouting, "Peace! Joy! Love! Thankfulness! Giving!" we feel downright guilty about our deepest truth: we just don't want to do the holidays the same way anymore.

That guilt gnaws at our energy for a good two months. We conduct our surface actions under the weight of the thought, "This is what I have to do." So we suck it up. We buy our plane tickets, or get in our cars, battling the crowds of people who all seem to be happily going to visit family, but very well could be gnawing away inside too.

Or we buy the new sparkly red dress, the high heels, the purse, the whole deal. We show up at the party with all the people we don't even like. We do it anyway. Why? Not exactly by choice, but because we think "we have to".

Or else what?

When was the last time you questioned your own holiday patterns of action and so-called "traditions"?

When was the last time you gave yourself permission to even ask the question, "What do I want to do for the holidays?"

Oh I'm fully aware that there are a group of you who are squirming or rolling your eyes or cursing me out right now as a heretic, a threat to the very fabric of upper middle class suburban culture. I hear you. I grew up surrounded by traditions of a very ancient and foreign culture, and I was not-so-subtly shaped into believing that these needed to be the foundation of my life forever. Or else.

The point isn't whether or not the traditions have any value. The point is, I never considered any other options, purely out of fear. I never even dared ask, "Or else what?"

Until recently. Until I started to look directly in the face of everything I had been avoiding, stepping around, exhausting myself while trying to "do the right thing" all the time.

You do not have to be good./You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting." These words from Mary Oliver's poem Wild Geese might just capture the feeling of dragging yourself through yet another holiday season of obligations. Yeah, right. Easy for her to say. She's a poet.

But can't we all relate to the oppressive feeling of trying to "be good"? Trying to live up to some imaginary ideal of what it means to be a good daughter, a good wife, a good sister-in-law, a good mother?

I know what it's like to feel the threat of literal death as a consequence of disobeying "the rules" of whatever your particular religion is. My religion was family. No one broke the sacred ranks of family. Or else.

Or else what?

Since I never asked, I never found out. Until I actually found the courage to take little steps outward. So my steps weren't that little. I "squandered" an education, for example, by graduating from medical school without a job. Wasting money, wasting time, wasting an education - all of those thoughts, and the accompanying guilt, I confronted many times before and since that decision. And yet, not only have I survived, but I have thrived since that decision. I have, with each decision since then, gotten one step deeper into my own life, closer to my own true self's potential for creativity and service to the world.

Now, after three different careers and many lessons from great teachers, I am less attached to the "outer evidence" of thriving that I used to think were more important than my own feelings. Things like having lots of good shoes, wearing stiff clothes that make me look "important" but are totally confining to my body, and getting the approval of people who have certain credentials and wear those same kinds of clothes.

It took me until I was 33 years old before I was finally able to say calmly, "I will not be travelling anywhere for Thanksgiving this year, and no, I do not have plans to eat a traditional turkey dinner with anyone else." I spent it instead at the beach with a dear friend, sipping hot chocolate and ordering French fries while snuggled in our own corner of a hotel lobby, with not a care in the world nor a restriction on any of our topics of conversation.

It was the most delicious Thanksgiving in recent memory.

I imagined all of my family members, eating off the same dishes, going through the same motions, smiling through the same awkward moments, denying themselves their own true desires, halfway across the country. And I realized that I have now done something they have never done in their lives – I’ve spent Thanksgiving my own way.

I've found my own answer to the question, "Or else what?". It has come to me gradually, and gently, over time. I still notice the old guilt and the old questions coming up, but I know better now. I've experienced something more nourishing than any food I've ever tasted. It's the taste of joy. And the taste of real gratitude, not the obligatory kind.

And isn't that the essense of the holidays we've been trying to create anyway?

Photo credit: Used under a Creative Commons license, by Patricia Van Casteren