Last week a client came in and reported having some break through anxiety and depression. She was decorating the tree and watching holiday movies with her mom. All was well. Her heart was full. Until it suddenly wasn’t, and she felt “despairing and ungrounded”. She reported a feeling in her chest of physical tightness and described it as “lost hope”.
Synchronistically, a few weeks ago I hunted in my archives for an old blog I wrote about a similar experience. I did not remember where it had been published. Does it surprise you that most writers do not remember everything they write? I found this amnesia a bit disconcerting, until I heard other writers confessing the same thing. The novelists don’t necessarily remember the characters’ names, or exactly what each one did. Bloggers don’t remember all their blogs or articles—I have written hundreds– just like preachers don’t remember every sermon they’ve preached. But sometimes, for me, an old blog or article comes back into my consciousness, and when I look back at it, if I can even find it, there is always a reason.
Years ago, the following blog was published on a site I no longer write for. It had been stirring inside of me for weeks. I now know why it was with me. In a way, it is a premonition to get ready for another holiday that may be difficult. (If you want to know more about difficult holidays, look at our holiday series and read, Check Your Holiday Fantasies.) It is also a reminder to focus on real hope this holiday season. It is always a bit startling when something I have written in the past helps me or someone else in the present. I was able to help my client process years and years of holiday grief. Perhaps it will help you, too. Let me know!
Originally published January 5, 2014 as Hope On The Twelfth Day Of Christmas
This story starts on the first Sunday of Advent, which this liturgical year was December 1st, 2013. It was evening, and I was home alone decorating my tree. I felt good, happy, was listening to Handel’s Messiah, had eaten a good dinner and was sipping a glass of wine in between hanging ornaments. My hand was reaching up to one of the higher branches of the tree to hang a favorite hand- blown glass angel when suddenly I was visited by a familiar Christmastide emotion.
When “it” visits, I quickly become heavy, depressed, almost despairing. When “it” visits, I am reminded of what it feels like to get the flu. One minute I am fine, and the next I am sick in bed with a fire of a fever. Just like that; one moment I was happy and completely enjoying the moment, and the next I was blue and unhopeful. In that moment, I felt sure that Christmas would once again bring disappointment. Another death, another accident, another surgery, another sickness, another way that things would not go the way I intended them to go.
I dread this feeling. Although it feels very real and in some ways to be expected given what so many of my holidays have held, I also very truly feel happiness, expectation, joy, connectedness…many positive feelings that I associate with the holidays. Why can’t these positive feelings dominate my consciousness? I went to sleep that night wondering what, if anything, I could do with these paradoxical experiences and feelings.
Things can change
The next morning while meditating I got stuck on the word hope. Interesting, since the first candle of the Advent Wreath symbolically represents hope. What, exactly, was the hope of Christmas? What could I hope for, since I already knew I could not hope for an incident-free holiday? That morning I decided to dedicate my Advent meditations to hope.
The first words that came to my mind were those of T.S. Eliot:
I said to my soul be still and wait
without hope, for hope would be
hope for the wrong thing;
These words had a hold of me for several days. It became clear to me that I was hoping for the wrong thing. I was hoping to magically control things I could not control. I realized I was even praying, in some sly way, that God would let this Christmas pass without any big trauma. “Just give me one Christmas that won’t be disappointing, God. Really. Is that too much to ask? Maybe this year it will be the way I imagine it should be. Do some magic here God, on my behalf.” Embarrassing but true.
The second week Richard Rohr’s words from The Naked Now came into my consciousness. “Hope and union are the same thing. Real hope has nothing to do with mental certitudes.” Real hope. That’s what I want to focus on. The hope of being in relationship with God, of spending time with the Holy One, of paying attention to what God was doing with the incarnation. God becoming human. God-seed in everyone. Now that was something I could hang my hope on. I knew that to be true.
The third week I was focused on the hope I feel when I get to spend extended, relaxed time with my daughter and husband. I allowed myself to feel my deep and abiding love for them, as well as for my extended family and close personal friends. They love me and I know how to receive that love. I can hope in that.
The fourth week I spent time with Romans 15:12-13. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” I wanted to overflow with hope, but I wanted it to be real hope. The hope that I knew came from trusting in God, not by trusting that nothing bad would happen over the holidays.
Progress Not Perfection
The “visitor” came several more times during the holiday. When it did, I quietly acknowledged my disappointment of Christmases past, and I said to myself, “Don’t go there. Don’t go down that rabbit hole. It is not helpful.” I learned that trick from watching an interview with the wife of Randy Pausch, the man who gave The Last Lecture and whose book of the same title became a NY Times best seller. When his wife was asked during an interview how she dealt with the knowledge that her husband was going to die and that she was going to be a widow with two kids, she said that her therapist and she had come up with a mantra. That mantra was, “Not helpful.”
Indeed, it is not helpful to go into that place of despair. And not only is it not helpful, it is not the whole truth. The whole truth is that when I hold the paradox of the disappointments from the world as well as the joy of union with the Holy One and with others, then Christmas becomes exactly what it was meant to be. A chance to celebrate and honor that God became human and that we have an invitation to join in that relationship. The Latin phrase, Sic et Non, means Yes/And…or Yes/But. This Christmas, my hope was in the Yes/And.
In 2014, I am going to continue to focus on hope. I invite you to join me. What are you hoping for this new year? How does true hope manifest for you? Are there past disappointments that get in the way of moving into a state of hopefulness? Name them. What keeps you from opening to some new possibilities? How do you hold yourself back from living into the fullness that you are? Let me know what you think.
Hope in 2020
I don’t think I can add much to what I wrote six years ago. I imagine many of us will feel grief, sadness, and hopelessness this Christmas. Try to witness those feelings without going down the rabbit hole. Instead, focus on the abundance, joy, and blessings a different kind of Christmas will bring to you.
I have a private practice of individual psychotherapy and marriage counseling in Columbia, SC. A few years ago my book, Moment to Moment: The Transformative Power of Everyday Life, won Spirituality and Health’s top 100 books of the year. And my second book, LAUNCH: A Guide To Adulting, written with Dr. Rhea Merck, just hit the stores. You can find it on messymarvelous.com, or on Amazon.com. I am passionate about many things in life, but especially about psychology, spirituality, dancing, cooking, marriage, family, friends, writing, traveling, and learning. www.amysandermontanez.com
You can email me at [email protected]
Our new book, LAUNCH: A Guide To Adulting, is available on Amazon and through our website. If you order it by Wednesday, the 16th, you should have it in time for a lovely Christmas gift! Read the reviews on Amazon. The book is a hit!