Questions for a Calmer Christmas

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It’s Christmas time, people, and all too often I head into this season of hope with an anxious scarcity mentality. This has to be the most perfect holiday ever, I tell myself. And usually conscious thought stops there as the emotional hyperventilating commences.

But this year, I’m forcing myself to fully explore my insane thought process. It goes a little something like this: The kids are growing up. I can’t waste these prime magical Santa years! Before I know it, they’ll be out of the house. What if they never realize how much we love them? What if they have no positive childhood memories? What if I fail in this whole parenting gig and they grow up dysfunctional, unable to carry out a fulfilling and self-sufficient life? What if they have no moral or spiritual center? What if, as adults, they’re just relieved to escape me and never want to come home? Mr. M and I will be abandoned on Christmas! We’ll be abandoned in general! Clearly, if I don’t hand-make a gorgeous Advent calendar from reclaimed pallet wood RIGHT NOW, the children will be traumatized and I will die alone and unloved.

Oh, God in Heaven. I’m uncomfortable using power tools. We are all SCREWED.

 Okay. So writing it down makes me realize that it’s crazy. And yet, this crazy and often subconscious inner monologue is exactly why I commit to too much and then berate myself for not following through (or for following through with bitter cynicism instead of oodles of genuine goodwill).

This year, I’m determined to step back from the ledge.

For me, that means visualizing my ideal future and setting specific holiday goals that will move me in that direction. Oh Kate, you might be thinking. Isn’t that a little extreme for holiday planning? Can’t you just put up some decorations, make some hot cocoa, and let Bing Crosby sing you through the season?

Theoretically, yes. I’m sure that’s how reasonable people do things. But I tend to be far from reasonable, especially during this time of year. I succumb to ridiculous self-imposed expectations, excess, and over-extension that generally sour my whole Christmas season. I’m hoping to avoid all that by having a strong vision rolling into Advent.

According to my backwards logic, I need a complicated plan to ensure that my Advent and Christmas season stay simple. (Feel free to judge that all you want. Heaven knows, I certainly do!)

So I’m stepping back from Pinterest. Instead, I’m considering my holiday plans in light of the following questions:

  • When my co-celebrants someday look back on this year and/or time, what do I want them to remember? How do I want those memories to affect their/our future? What special memories do I have regarding the holidays of my past? What can I carry over and share in the present? What memories do I want to create? How do these kinds of memories connect to my larger goals and values? How do I hope my current celebrations will influence my future and my evolving relationships?
  • What realities must I acknowledge in my holiday planning? What non-holiday obligations do I already have on my plate? Are there traditions already in place that I need to uphold? What limits do I need to respect?  How many activities, traditions, or obligations can I honestly take on while maintaining my wellness?
  • With whom do I celebrate the holidays? What are their ages, temperaments, and needs? How must I account for this as I plan? (Confession: all too often, I’ve had a “fun” experience go irredeemably south because I ignored the likely possibility that my two-year-old would, in fact, act like a two-year-old.)
  • What do we gain and what do we lose by attempting any particular holiday tradition or activity? How much time and energy will it take? What are the potential benefits of taking this on? What are the potential costs? Is this worth it? How does this tradition or activity relate to my larger goals and values? Is there another way to put those goals and values in action—and if so, would this be a better option for us at this time?
  • What motivates me to even consider incorporating a particular activity or tradition into my holiday season? Will this really add joy or other value to my life? Will it really bring joy or other value to my co-celebrants? Or am I once again making decisions with an anxious scarcity mentality? Am I “shoulding” all over myself? (Father James Martin SJ suggests of that last phrase, “Say it aloud and the negative meaning becomes clearer.”)

I’m hoping this little litmus test helps to guide my family towards a more peaceful and rewarding holiday season. Here’s hoping that some small part of it may do the same for you, dear reader!

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Common Sense for Christmas

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(If you’re lucky, Santa might just bring you this book.) 

It’s nearly Advent, and the Christian readers of this blog (do I have any readers?) probably know what that means… happy new (church) year!

I don’t know about you, but for me any prospect of a fresh start is both thrilling and dangerous. It’s thrilling because this is my chance to finally live out all of my best intentions. And it’s dangerous because my “best intentions” often don’t take into account such pesky little details as, oh, reality.

I’m really hoping that this holiday season (and Year A in general) buck my usual trend.

That trend goes something like this: at first, I’m buoyed by the general excitement of a new beginning. At the beginning of a new church year, school year, or calendar year I make tons of resolutions and move forward with gusto. But all too soon, I abandon whatever it was I was theoretically so passionate about incorporating into my life. And then, as an extra-special emotional bonus, I pile on the self-shaming because I was “too lazy” to make those changes.

My spiritual life is certainly no exception to this grim pattern. Let’s take this upcoming Christmas season as a case in point. I’ve been scrolling through Pinterest, collecting images of beautiful things that the more motivated mamas are already doing. I build theoretical plans to do this art project or start that ritual… and then I guilt myself because I’m not already doing it.

I feel all this self-induced pressure to make Advent and Christmas magical and meaningful for my family. Unfortunately, all that pressure renders me too anxious to truly enjoy anything with them and I often spend the holidays as a sweating, resentful bystander… or, conversely, treating my partner and children like expendable window dressing in the display of my theoretical perfection. (“Just go away so that Mommy can create precious memories for you!” I find myself thinking. And yeah, I realize that’s not a statement that should be on any reasonable person’s radar. But there you go.)

So this year, I’m going to do a little pre-thinking. Before I get seduced into trying out a cute tradition or a truly awesome reverse advent calendar, I need to ask myself: what is it I’m actually trying to accomplish here? And what are the actual parameters of my life that I need to acknowledge while pursuing that goal? Where can I simplify? Where can I say no?

Saying no is incredibly hard for me, but also (usually) incredibly rewarding when I can manage it.

While I ponder our 2016 plans for Advent and Christmas, I’ll be consulting an invaluable resource—Beyond Happy: Women, Work, and Well-Being. The author of this book, Dr. Beth Cabrera, works in positive psychology. In Beyond Happy, she puts her expertise (plus tons of her peers’ meticulous research) to work analyzing (a) why the culture of anxiety thrives and how we can say no to it, (b) how we can uncover our individual purpose, and (c) how to access that purpose in practical ways that dramatically enhance our quality of life. In covering these points, we can also (d) make a more positive impact on the world as a whole.

Self-induced pressure, you may be a familiar and longstanding companion. But I’ve got to tell you, Cabrera’s message is much more in keeping with the spirit of Advent and Christmas!

Chapter Five of Cabrera’s book is titled “Be Hopeful.” In it, she advises readers to visualize their ideal future and set specific goals that will move them in their desired direction. After completing this important initial work, Cabrera then recommends:

  • Using if-then planning to guide action.
  • Identifying several alternative strategies for achieving goals.
  • Keeping a victory log as a record of all successes.
  • Considering the efforts expended by role models to achieve success.

As I work through the steps recommended by Cabrera, I’ll be posting the seasonal-specific questions I used to guide my planning, as well as some specifics on how they shaped or shifted my perception of our family’s needs.  I’ll add link-backs to those further musings in this post.

But in the mean time, dear reader, how do you create meaningful and memorable holidays?

Sadducees and Election Fatigue

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It’s my week to teach Sunday school, and I’m stuck with a truly snore-worthy passage: the Sadducees questioning Jesus about the legitimacy of the resurrection. Ugh. Somehow, I doubt the preschool crowd will be entranced or inspired by a hypothetical merry widow working her way through seven brothers. Nor will they be impressed by the theological feats of derring-do performed by Jesus as he evades the traps in the Sadducees’ tricky question.

For my own part, I want to scream at the Sadducees: “Quit wasting time looking to discredit someone who’s just trying to help! Why are you so focused on the resurrection or lack thereof? There’s plenty to focus on in the here-and-now! Just do the best you can to love your neighbor and let all that other stuff sort itself out after you die! You should be making allies and finding solutions to the real problems of this world! Starving children. Institutionalized racism. Rape. Violence. Cruelty. Oh, and let’s not forget potentially irreversible climate change. Climb out of your self-righteous little hole and stop worrying so much about protecting your own power, already!”

Hey. Wait a minute, there.

Could I possibly be reacting to our current bitter election cycle? Could it possibly be that the long-dead Sadducees are not the powerful leaders who annoy me? Hi, my name is Kate. I’ve survived watching three presidential debates and I’ve got the emotional scars to prove it.

Hmm. Perhaps the fact that Jesus actually listened to the Sadducees and responded to their concern is proof of his divinity. He didn’t pivot. He didn’t use their question as a platform for attacking a scapegoat, vilifying an opponent, or bragging about his own greatness. He stayed on-topic. It indicates that (gasp!) he may have actually been listening.

I know plenty of people—myself sadly included—who have stopped listening to understand. We merely listen to respond or, even worse, we listen to confirm our own worst suspicions. And really, that’s not listening at all.

I want something better for my children. I want something better for myself. Maybe it’s time to grow up a little, shift my point of view, and do my own part to put the “civil” back in civil discourse.