Last night, Cheryl and I saw the animated movie The Star. Yes, it had some cheesy moments and lacked some of the punch of my favorite Pixar movies. But it was a fun and unique look at the original Christmas story and fully put me in the mood to celebrate Christmas.
I love Christmas. It has always been my favorite holiday of the year - unless you count National High Five Day (the third Thursday of April each year). I enjoy the madness of Christmas shopping. I eagerly anticipate hearing Kelly Clarkson's incredible acapella version of O Holy Night. I get giddy when thinking about singing and dancing along to Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas Is You. And of course, nothing puts me in the Christmas spirit more than hearing Arnold Schwarzenegger yell "PUT THOSE COOKIES DOWN NOW" at Phil Hartman in Jingle All The Way.
This year, between decorations, the scented candles, and the wonderful peppermint flavored hot chocolate drinks, I've fully embraced the Christmas season. Heck, I've even embraced the dark side of Christmas and watched a few Hallmark Christmas movies (I've set up a GoFundMe account for those who want to contribute towards my much needed mental health fund)...
But last year felt much different. I remember feeling like I've was just going through the motions. We put up the Christmas tree, hung the ornaments, drank egg nog, and even watched Tim Allen fall off the roof of his house and use a Secret Santa gift exchange to find a wife. But Christmas just felt kinda blah. Not a good or bad experience - more of an indifference than anything else.
But why? I mean, it wasn't the first Christmas after losing mom...it was the third. I cherished the previous two Christmas seasons and created some very special memories. While there was much pain there was also much joy in celebrating with those who I love and care for. This third year, I felt nothing.
The busyness of work and school had stolen my ability to feel.
Busyness: The The Grinch That Steals Christmas
Throughout much of the holiday season last year, I was in the midst of one of the busiest times of my life. I was completing the final projects for each of my grad school classes, executing all of my work and internship responsibilities, serving at church...all while interviewing for the open executive director position at New Hope Center for Grief Support.
Christmas? Ain't nobody got time for that...(is that reference old enough to become vintage and cool again?)
I remember that Christmas Eve so well. My school semester was over, and I was off work through the end of the year. I shut the door to my home office so I could finally wrap presents (which really means shove them into a bag with some fancy tissue paper). I lit my Balsam & Cedar Yankee Candle (a highly controversial item in the Guttersohn residence) and turned on some soft Christmas carols. As the sounds and smells of Christmas filled the room, years of Christmas memories began to flood my mind in a way that only a Hallmark Christmas movie could properly explain...
And suddenly, a fierce ugly cry occurred, leaving me in need of a beard washing to remove the plethora of facial excretions.
Until that day, I hadn't created the emotional space to fully enjoy Christmas.
One of my favorite Christmas movies, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, shows this best. In the midst of the holiday madness, Clark Griswold gets trapped in his attic while the rest of his family goes shopping. Trying to find anything to stay warm, he discovers old film reels full of simple family moments. Cue the amazing song "That Spirit of Christmas" by Ray Charles, and the memories and tears begin to flow. While I don't recommend locking yourself in the attic (nor any of the other things Clark does during the movie), I do know how powerful and healing it can be to create space to feel and remember.
Make Space To Feel
Here's an important life lesson: We don't get to pick and choose what we can feel. By avoiding, numbing, or simply not intentionally making time to process our grief, sadness, guilt, or fear, we limit or lose our capacity to feel love, joy, and peace - three vital emotions commonly attributed to the spirit of the Christmas season.
Creating this space meant stepping out of the survival mode I had entered into for the previous six months in order to power through grad school while having increased responsibilities at work. But survival mode has also robbed me of the ability to connect emotionally with my wife and created much of the indifference during this holiday season.
Survival mode allows us to avoid the painful thoughts and emotions of the Holiday season so we can function on a basic level. However, survival mode also robs us of the ability to give and receive love and enjoy new experiences that turn into cherished future memories.
During this Holiday season, survival mode may be an absolute necessity. That Maslow guy is fairly smart and his hierarchy of needs table is absolutely true. But for those who are stuck in prolonged survival mode, know that it comes at a cost.
I know more than most how hard it is to hit the pause button. Our minds race. We get fidgety and feel like there's something we've forgotten. And sometimes our minds are flooded with random thoughts like which Ninja Turtle would make the best NFL running back.
When I really am having a hard time, I'll just say a simple prayer and ask God to help.
Slow down. Find a quiet space. Light a Christmas candle. Put on some simple music. Heck, lock your self in the attic if necessary. This might just be the greatest Christmas gift you receive this season.
Join The Conversation
Are you struggling right now during the holidays? Have you felt isolated, alone, or just struggling to make time for yourself? You aren't alone. Share your stories in the comments, or connect with me on Twitter @RickGuttersohn.
And if your looking for grief support, take the next step on your journey. Visit www.newhopecenter.net for the latest workshops, seminars, or peer support groups. Healing begins when hope is found!