The impending holidays have me in a darkly pensive frame of mind, and coherent cultural critique requires focus, and is not a timely way to accomplish what I would like to, as the holidays are in full swing – a turn of phrase that might call dancing to mind, if the holidays are a time with some joy in them for you, and that might call to mind dangling from the end of a rope, if it is a time that feels like it exists to enhance your misery.
That is not meant to be a cruel joke – for people who are lonely and depressed, the relentless tide of supposed cheer can escalate those feelings of isolation and sadness. I knew someone who ended her life on a new year’s eve. I wish no one ever felt that way, but people do, and denying it does not help.
Which is, in all, why I want to skip the lengthier attempt to reason out why the things that are wrong with this time of year are what they are, and instead just address people on either side of the holiday-having divide. With the caveat that I am just a person, I am not a shrink or a saint. I can’t heal you or prescribe to you or save you. I am not in a position to offer more than the words on the screen, in the hope that maybe I can make the season a little less miserable for you, and if at all possible, maybe a little happier.
If you are someone who has loved ones to spend the holidays with, someone who has a safe, comfortable home that is decorated, and houses holiday gifts, and maybe serves as the site of a holiday event, you might be feeling your own negative feelings this time of year. Maybe you put pressure on yourself to be the perfect host, perfect Santa. I have been that person, when I was young and struggling to fill a role I could not, and felt the pressure of performing in a family in which love was incredibly conditionally and inconsistently given (which I didn’t understand was not actually love). And I can understand those feelings. Especially when, as is inevitable, there is someone in your awareness who has more. Who can buy more gifts, or more expensive gifts. Who has a bigger house. Whose family has more on-the-surface successes or apparent happiness.
Every person, even the most decent, I think, has a touch of narcissism – we spend all of our time with ourselves, and we spend, most likely, too much time thinking about ourselves. And the kind of pain associated with over-achieving holiday hosting is not inescapable pain, it is chosen pain. We don’t have to do all the things. There is almost certainly no fatal consequence to not doing them. That someone in your family might be displeased is not, most likely, a true survival threat, and would merely be unpleasant – and probably less unpleasant than having a stress heart-attack while trying to make home-made eggnog.
Beyond that, the kind of stress that comes from having in excess and over-achieving is also a pain rooted in only focusing our attention on others who have (or seem to have) more than we do – meaning the kind of focus on others that is really still just a focus on ourselves, the kind that fuels the masochistic pleasure of self-pity, not empathy and compassion. The latter comes from looking at those who have less – unhappier families, no family, less money, no money, unsafe homes, no homes. If we choose not to look at those whose inescapable suffering diminishes our ability to throw self-pity parties, we keep ourselves locked in unhealthy behaviors, in unnecessary misery, in lives that are bound to be less happy and fulfilled.
If the suggestion that you don’t have to make dinner for fifty even if your mother-in-law will be a real bitch about it has you ready to scream that I don’t get it, you don’t have a choice, well, you are kind of proving my point. That the way you are approaching the holiday isn’t just dismissive of the pain of people in truly dire circumstances, it is not making you happy.
This is one of the thing that most mystifies me about the financial and social systems that exist the world over – even the people who benefit the most from those systems don’t seem to be happy. Many, if not all, seem to be straight-up miserable.
Participation in the holidays are, by and large, at least in our non-theocracy, a matter of choice for those with the means to participate. And many choose to participate at the cost of their happiness.
We all make choices. If your choice is to drive yourself to distraction trying to please people, people who would prefer that you drive yourself to distraction to please them than that you also be happy, well, that is your choice. But I do hope you will at least consider whether that is a good choice, a choice you want to make for yourself.
And if you have the means to give, I would ask you to consider maybe giving where it will not be demanded, or taken for granted, or unappreciated – there are people in your community whose lives would actually be changed for the better by a benevolent stranger paying their heating bill or getting rid of a credit card debt. There are multitudes of critical and underfunded services for people who are suffering that would make good use the fifty dollars you spent on an iTunes gift card that your nephew threw in the trash. There are loads of people on platforms like GoFundMe in desperate need of help to survive tragedies. Hell, there are people in your own life who would be absolutely thrilled to be invited to your house for a holiday affair of wearing pajamas and being provided with wine and takeout while appreciating your beautiful Christmas decorations, who would appreciate generosity that did not require you to suffer even a little stress-baldness.
If the holidays really are about generosity and celebration, about spreading cheer and kindness, and not about keeping up appearances or fulfilling a role that causes you pain, or if you would like them to be, there is still time to make different choices. The kind that don’t just make other people happy, but that will bring you happiness, too. Even if you never get to see the people you’ve helped, you get to know that you, you, had the power to change a life for the better, and did. And that is the point of giving. To do what kindness you can, because you can. A gift is something freely given. Not in the expectation of anything in return – including gratitude. A transaction is not a gift.
And if you are someone for whom the holidays feel like an in-your-face, sadistic reminder of all that you wish you had, but don’t, well, I feel you, too. I have spent more than one Christmas alone. I may again. I know what it is like to live on a razor’s edge of survival. I know what it is like to lose everything you have. I know what it is like to live with violence. I know what it is like to lose all of the people you love most. I know that if you are included as a lone afterthought in some other family’s holiday, it can be lonelier than spending the day alone, because on the holiday (everyday, really), we all tend to want to be where we feel we belong, and when we don’t, the sadness of watching people from the sidelines who have what you don’t can be what it feels like the holidays are about.
I can’t promise you that some kind-hearted soul will come along and invite you into a celebration where you will feel truly welcomed and included. Or that your estranged family will be visited by three ghosts in the night and wake up new, kinder people ready to make amends and bring longed-for love into your life. Or that Santa will drop a bag of cash from his sleigh that will free you from your survival fears and enable you to get a last-minute tree and gifts for your kids. Or that the person who broke your heart will experience a change in their own, and reach out to you, and take away the feeling that you ceased to exist when they ceased to acknowledge you.
I am not going to be the asshole blowing thoughts-and-prayers-and-unfounded-optimism up your ass. Grief is hard. Impoverishment is hard. Loneliness is hard. Living with trauma or its after-effects is hard. I know it myself, and if you are reading on because the miserable-holidays speaks to you, I am pretty secure in saying you know it, too. I am not expecting a merry anything this year. And that sucks. But I am expecting I will wake up in late February when this long run of holidaying is over, and still be here to fight and hope and, everything-willing, be happy another day. I have lived through many of the god-I-wish-this-would-kill-me experiences, and they sucked as hard as that hyphenated run of words suggests, but I lived. I live. I intend to keep living.
I hope it helps you to know there are other people who aren’t going to be happily blowing lines off Santa’s ass, or having an old-fashioned family money fight in the solarium this holiday season. That you aren’t the only person who wishes it was March already, and you would be free til November of the have/have-not-idays. Maybe if you look around, you will find someone else in your life who will want to spend the helliday with you. Maybe, however fucked your life is, you still have the ability to help someone else who is as bad – or worse – off. Truly, even when you are down, it is possible to help, and there is something reaffirming about connecting meaningfully with another human being. We are, like it or not, social animals. It is how we evolved, how we survived, how we still survive. And it is hard to feel powerless or worthless or hopeless when your actions make a positive difference in another life.
Even if you end up spending the holidays crying into the whiskey you are pretending is egg nog while “I’ll be home for Christmas” plays on a loop, you can still switch to water, get some sleep, and wake up to the relief of days that have no sad emotional resonance. If the whiskey-nog brings you to contemplating what the unfortunate soul I knew did, who ended her own life on a holiday about new beginnings, because, I suppose, she couldn’t imagine such things when she had so many powerful losses in the recent past, please remember that there are hotlines you can call, where total strangers willingly listen to people in their darkest moments, because there are, in fact, some decent human beings out there, and not everything good is out of reach to those who aren’t lucky enough to have love and money. (The suicide hotline number in the U.S., by the way, is 1-800-273-8255 or 1-800-273-TALK.)
There is little in this world more valuable than the support of a compassionate human being when we feel alone and lost and ready to give up. And that is something you can have. I hope if you need it, you will call. Even if you aren’t actively suicidal, you can still call and talk to someone at the National Suicide Hotline. And there are other hotlines and warm lines out there, as well, with people who will advise you about escaping abuse, or who are fellow sufferers of addiction or mental illness, and a myriad of other options.
I wish for everyone to both give and receive some compassion and kindness this holiday season – including giving some of both to yourselves. Maybe for you, that means allowing that you don’t have to host a work party and a neighborhood party and a family party, and just do one, or hell, none. Give the money to charity, instead, and if anyone gives you any shit about not hosting, tell them you decided this year to give the money to aid organizations feeding starving children, and let them feel like an asshole (or know they will be judged as one if they open their mouths to bitch at that point).
Maybe it means allowing that it is okay to need help, and calling a friend, or calling a hotline.
Maybe it means choosing to ignore the holiday altogether and doing some spring-cleaning in December instead.
I also hope everyone will take some time to consider the idealized meanings of the holiday season, and try to put more effort into those things.
Could be you yourself are one of those estranged loved ones who could choose to make amends. You could Ebenezer Scrooge someone into a renewed faith in life and humanity by doing what is difficult, owning your fuck-ups, and behaving differently.
Maybe there is someone in your sphere of acquaintance who is not the easiest person to deal with, who likely could use a little compassion – even if it is just saying hello to a crabby neighbor, and ignoring their defensive reply (or non-reply).
Maybe there is a person who is elderly and living alone in your neighborhood you could choose to befriend – starting with an invite to the holiday party you are throwing. They will likely appreciate it a lot more than the people you look at with barely-suppressed resentment across the dining table.
Maybe you could just take the time to reevaluate how you view the people who suffer in the world, if you are one who tends to blame and shame, and ask what fears about the fragility and vulnerability of your own good luck probably fuel those beliefs.
Maybe instead of spending fifty dollars on a gift card for someone who doesn’t need or appreciate it, you can put that fifty dollars in the hands of someone who has nothing, the next time you see someone sleeping on a street. Fifty dollars is a fortune for someone with nothing – and if you want to go off on some compassionless rant about how they will just spend it on drugs or booze, well, be honest – you live inside, and you probably do the same with some of the money you have, and know you do so as a way to deal with pain of some kind. Do you really think the stress of your life can touch the stress of weathering the winter outdoors? Before you consider the statistics that a majority of people who are homeless are veterans, and a majority of people who are homeless suffer from mental illness (and the sad reality that means a large number must be both)?
Maybe all of this sounds like bullshit, but if you are so sure it is, you could try, and try to prove me wrong – in all likelihood, you will find out that some of it isn’t bullshit. There are so many things we can do, that require little of us, that can make a difference in someone else’s life – and doing that usually feels pretty good. One Christmas – the first I spent alone, actually – the friend I call my little brother, who was serving in Afghanistan at the time, who I hadn’t heard from in worryingly long, called me. That remains the single greatest Christmas gift I have ever gotten, and made a day that was overall pretty sad suddenly happier.
Helping others really does help ourselves, too. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be typing into the void, trying to encourage hypothetical readers through a season that is difficult for many, some by choice, some by circumstance, and feeling a little less unhappy about the holidays myself. Isolation makes most of what is bad, worse. Give yourself a chance to feel a little better. Your words, your time, your attention, your company – these are gifts most of us are able to give, and some of the most needed and appreciated. (That said, if you can give money, to people without it, money can be the difference between life and death, so by all means, if you can, give that, too.)
I wish you happy holidays, or join you in saying fuck the holidays, according to whichever actually makes your holidays a little better.