Longings intensify at the Holidays
My legendary mentor, Dr. Elvin Semrad, observed that “there are three choices in life: to kill yourself, go crazy, or learn to live with what you have in life”. This can be a particular challenge at Christmas.
“There’s no place like home for the Holidays” promises a more universal experience of warmth and joy than reality serves up for many, and fuels and ignites longings that the effort of grieving have let settle to ash. The gap between what we have and what we wish we had is wider and deeper at Holiday time. Many people aren’t dreaming of a White Christmas, but would gladly settle for a Christmas that isn’t blue.
One of the challenges to holding one’s emotional balance is the experience of spending Holiday time with very difficult family members. I find myself reminding particular patients of the importance of maintaining hard-won appropriate boundaries for self-protection. Sometimes this amounts to avoiding being alone with a particular person. The temptation to repeat old patterns with the hope that “it will be different this time” is an invitation to regression and subsequent pain.
Over the years, several of my patients have presented a wide-ranging set of issues that generated for each of them particular difficulties at Christmas time. One woman struggled with feeling inadequate to the task of choosing gifts that could please family members. Shopping became a nearly overwhelming challenge for her, which she dreaded with painful anticipation for weeks. While we did not identify a focussed memory or specific interpretation to explain her holiday trouble, as we worked intensively and patiently on developing her sense of self, her capacity to related to others naturally grew, and she became comfortable with choosing gifts. She no longer dreads the Holidays. Even her memory of this former suffering has now faded.
Having expectations of joy and fulfillment at the Holidays (or any particular time, for that matter) is an invitation to let-down. I believe that the most wholesome way to approach Christmas is to remember that each day is an adventure, an opportunity to learn and to feel and to love, to have compassion for one’s self and for others, and, unpredictably, to experience magic.
My personal experience of magic did once happen on a particular Christmas Eve.
Christmas Eve l943. Worcester, Massachusetts. I am four years old. It is Friday night, Shabbas — the Jewish Sabbath — at my grandmother’s house, in the kitchen with the green enamel Glenwood stove, the waxed linoleum, the maple table and chairs, the mahogany clock on the mantle that chimes and is wound with a key, and the radio with the war news. My mother, aunt, and grandmother have on cardigans over their patterned house dresses, and ankle socks with their laced up, black-for-winter, Cuban-heeled shoes. My father is, as he was required to do most Fridays, working late. After supper, when it’s time for my mother and me to walk back up the hill to our home, Auntie Rosie looks into my face and says, “Sussaleh, you must be old enough now to know that there really isn’t any Santa Claus.” My chest feels cold. The night goes dead.
I don’t remember much of the trek home, but when we are nearly there, oh my goodness…there…he…is. Big and red and a shiny black belt and a bushy white beard and a hat and a sack. “Ho, ho, ho, little girl. You’d better get home and get to bed before I get there.” I remember my mother dialing the telephone and putting me on with Auntie Rosie. “There is, too, Santa Claus. I just saw him.”
Sometimes I wonder if this really happened, just as I wonder whether, once when I was snorkeling in the Caribbean, I really saw the sea horse holding by its tail to sea grasses.
My work in the world includes the honor of accompanying my patients through the daily adventures of their lives and helping them as best I can to know what they have to know, to feel what they have to feel, to think what they have to think — to be alive to their lives with as much courage and peace as possible — at Christmas and every day.