When I was growing up, the holidays were grim. We weren’t destitute, and we certainly enjoyed the privileges of our middle class status, but emotionally, Christmas and the days leading up to it were tense. My mother was perpetually anxious about how everything would turn out, my father and my adult brothers drank too much for anyone’s liking, and almost every Christmas event ended in drama and tears. These occurrences served as the benchmark for me to gauge the season in my childhood and young adult life. It was the story I told and the one I held on to for more years than I care to count. This is how Christmas was, I thought, and therefore it is how it will be forever.
Even I have to admit now that this is a very old tale. My parents have been gone more than 30 years and I am, more or less, in control of the outcomes of my holidays. Still, when it gets to be December 20 or so, the reality of my current life does not stop me from predicting the worst and becoming my own modern version of my mother. As I replay these ancient events like a burnt-out 4th grade teacher who puts on the same Christmas play every December, I begin to bore even myself. I understand that our old stories—even those that have nothing to do with the holidays—serve their own purpose. But at 66, it feels as if they stunt me and stop me more than prepare me to face negative eventualities.
I’m more and more convinced that the real goal is to break out of the confines of our old, predictable stories—those ones we know so well.
I think when you are closer to 70 than to 60, as I am now, there is a grumpy, distant voice that urges you to want less and expect the least. We almost take pride in being able to say, “I know exactly what’s going to happen.” We convince ourselves that this knowledge of all of the dour potentialities is a kind of earned mastery. “I know what happened before,” we think to ourselves. “I will not be disappointed when it happens again.” If we stay on this path, we actually believe we have it all worked out by the time we’re my age.
But I’m thinking this is not how I really want to approach things going forward. The purpose of life cannot be the ability to predict gloom and doom or to know exactly when Person A is going to let us down or Situation B is going to disappoint. It can’t be that we’re allotted only a finite number of old stories with which to lull ourselves into an anxious state each night.
I’m more and more convinced that the real goal is to break out of the confines of our old, predictable stories—those we know so well. I’m thinking it's where the real power lies, no matter how hard it is to do it. In their place, I imagine building a practice of learning and building and expanding and trusting what is in me. In this version of things, rather than imagining that Christmas is going to be disappointing as it always is, I provide my own soft, open space so I can be truly present no matter what’s happening.
Many of us were hurt as kids—even as adults. In the process, we were convinced that if there is grace in the world it comes from the people and the situations outside of us. I don’t think it does. It originates instead from the work we do inside, from knowing we can handle anything, and that we can find joy in a tiny moment. A kid likes the box more than the present. Your mom says the same passive aggressive thing at dinner that she said last year. Your dad is gloating because he thinks he’ll benefit from Trump’s new tax law. But then three robins flit past the window and you remember what joy there is in the world that matters.
It’s one day, I remind myself. I am committed to being in the world as fully as I can be. There has to be more possibility for all of us if each of us can find our own peace, in spite of the rusty narratives creaking around in our heads. I could spend days recounting the crazy stories of my biological family, or I could focus on the gratitude I feel this Christmas for all of the richness and creativity and love and empathy that surrounds me on a daily basis. The choice is mine and it’s a simple one.