Written by David Templin
In the first week of November, I walked into a drug store and was horrified to hear Christmas music piped in from all sides. A stranger in front of me stopped in his tracks and voiced out loud, “Oh for C***t’s sake! Give it a rest! There should be a law against playing Christmas music before December!” I chuckled, louder than I intended. The man turned and looked at me. Then we both laughed. For a moment, my horror and his anger went away. The laughter shifted my perspective and briefly connected me to another person. It wasn’t the Christmas spirit I was feeling mind you, it was way too early for that!
The Christmas season is supposed to represent peace and joy. We are surrounded by images and sounds and smells that are intended to invoke pleasant memories of family and communal spirit.
It is not surprising to me that often, far from invoking the feelings of peace and joy, the holiday season intensifies feelings of anxiety and depression. Peace and joy are high expectations. For many, they just seem unattainable. When I am depressed or anxious, the contrast between what I feel and what people tell me I should feel, makes me isolated.
I have dealt with anxiety long enough to know that its roots run deep within me and can be tricky to untangle. I have learned through others, including the contributors to this blog, an excellent way to address anxiety and depression is to isolate the feelings they generate. Identify each feeling, accept them, try to understand them. When I do this, my perspective changes and the anxiety subsides somewhat.
So with that in mind, let me try to isolate one of the feelings that I fear most, that is isolation itself.
I don’t want to join a club that would accept me as a member.
~ Groucho Marx
The quote above reflects a truth about my fear of isolation. My perceived banishment from society is self imposed. I want to belong to society and at the same time I want society and myself to live up to some unattainable standards. Like Groucho, I’m not good enough for society, and by extension, its not good enough for me!
Luckily, eight years ago, someone gave me a gift that has changed my perspective on the Christmas season and my fear of isolation. At the time, it didn’t seem like a gift. It seemed more like an obligation. A friend of mine asked me to help him organize a Christmas Eve dinner for less fortunate people. Out of an odd mixture of loyalty, high mindedness and guilt, I accepted. I did not know what I was getting into.
At first, I was afraid. I was afraid of what I was going to see. I was afraid the experience would make me sad and depressed.
The very first year surprised me. After eight years I am still surprised how this annual event makes me feel.
I soon discovered that all the guests have very different stories and backgrounds. Many of the guests are homeless now, but they weren’t always. When I took time to listen, I found their stories were full of joy and sorrow. Some of the guests are lonely, and crave the community aspect of the occasion. Some are dealing with mental illness. All have pride and dignity. Their honest expressions of gratitude for the food and the company are given with true grace. It warms my heart! It’s not like a pat on the back. I am simply happy, happy to be connected to the event and all the people there. During that dinner how I feel about where I stand in relation to everyone else changes. For that time, I belong to people and they belong to me.
Then there are the volunteers. There are so many people that want to help. Every year we have to turn potential volunteers away. It is one of my hardest tasks to tell people that we don’t need their help this year. You see, some of our volunteers were guests in previous years. Some of our volunteers have suffered pain and loss in the past that continue to invoke feelings of sorrowful longing, especially at Christmas time. Doing something good for others helps them with the pain in their own lives.
The blurring of the line between guests and volunteers has changed my perspective on the Christmas season and my view of isolation.
I recognize in myself what I see in many volunteers. I have a need to help. For me, it is deeply related to my need to belong and my fear of isolation.
Helping out on Christmas Eve is a way for me to feel I deserve to belong.
Alternatively, I recognize a wonderful quality in our guests that I find lacking in myself. They have accepted their need for help, and they appreciate the help they are given!
Like many people I find it easier to give than to receive. I now see that the willingness to receive is as important as giving. To be able to receive and to show appreciation for what is given, is a gift, so to speak.
What is it in myself that finds it difficult to receive?
Pride. It’s my pride that gets in the way.
My pride refuses to admit I need help. I’m afraid if I acknowledge I need help, I will think less of myself and others will agree with me. My pride fools me into thinking, if I accept help, I am less of a person.
If I put my pride aside, I can see my need for help connects me to others. What better proof that I belong, than the realization, like everyone else, I need help? What better gift to someone else is there than appreciating what they give to me?
My wish for myself in the new year is that I can better recognize where I need help, recognize where I can find it, appreciate help when it is offered and be grateful when it is given.
The annual Christmas Eve dinner has changed my perspective on isolation. I am not as afraid of isolation as I used to be. I know I belong. To really feel I belong, I must be willing to help and I must be willing to receive help.
In closing, let me leave you with what is now my favorite Christmas story. In this story, my perspective changed more than once. In the end, it was laughter that allowed me to feel more connected and less isolated. I may have even felt the Christmas spirit!
On Christmas night a couple of years ago, I drove my 96 year old cousin home after our family Christmas dinner. I pulled up behind another car in her apartment building driveway. A woman about my age was helping another elderly, tiny woman out of the car in front. As the woman was getting a shopping bag of gifts out of the back seat, I got out of my car and helped my elderly, tiny cousin out of her seat. With my cousin on one arm and a similar shopping bag of gifts in the other, we carefully navigated the snowy sidewalk to her front door, following just behind the ladies who had arrived before us.
We entered the outer lobby. The woman my age and I, watched as the two elderly women, both toting their shopping bags containing their Christmas gifts, shuffled their way inside the inner lobby to the elevator and got on. When the elevator doors closed, the woman turned to me and said,
“How old is yours?”
I smiled and replied, “That is my cousin, she is 96!”
“She looks very sweet.” The woman said.
“How old is yours?” I asked.
“That’s my mother, she’s 86. “ Then her tone changed, “And that’s the last f***ing time I have her over for f***ing Christmas! She’s an absolute monster! Nothing is good enough, the turkey was dry, the mashed potatoes had lumps, and to her, I’m a total f***ing failure!”
I was so surprised, I couldn’t help myself. I started laughing.
The woman looked at me slightly confused. She took a breath, then she started to laugh heartily. We both laughed so hard we had tears in our eyes.
“Merry Christmas!” she said finally.
“Merry Christmas to you too!” I said. Still chuckling, we both walked outside, back to our cars.
I want to wish you all a Happy New Year. May your year be filled with laughter, and may that laughter connect you to others and bring you joy!
Cartoon credit: David Templin
He keeps busy by volunteering to help seniors and helps organize an annual dinner to feed well over a thousand less fortunate people on Christmas Eve.
His greatest joy in life is when he successfully makes people smile and laugh.