The Gift of Compassion
Presented December 9th, 2018
We are just over two weeks out from Christmas Day, and like most years, I have not yet mailed Christmas gifts to my aunt and cousins in the United Kingdom.
Every year, in early November, I start thinking about possible gifts – not too heavy – because of postal costs – that I could send.
I go through a number of options, dismiss them all for one reason or another, and eventually forget to do anything at all.
Then I begin to receive parcels from my cousins, because they mail their gifts in October to get the best postal rates. At which point I start to panic and then get paralyzed by the panic.
I finally get an idea and decide that’s the one, only to realize that was what I sent last year.
Eventually, the right gifts come into my brain and I get them, then the gifts sit in the house for another week before I finally wrap, package and mail, usually a few days before Christmas.
After years of feeling terrible about this, knowing that for them, these are January gifts not Christmas ones, I’ve come to a kind of zen acceptance that this how I do Christmas.
I anticipate early, then forget about it, and then get it all done in a last minute rush.
I could be more graceful, more organized, more prepared, but then, as the meditation (By Maureen Killoran) said, I wouldn’t need Christmas.
I’ve learnt to give myself the gift of self compassion in this holiday season.
It’s taken me years to accept this gift.
I have had a lot of expectations of Christmas, it was a favourite day in my childhood, a special day of dress up clothes and festive foods,
pretty decorations, and sitting by the fire all day long.
As a non-Christian family, the day wasn’t a religious celebration, but a family and cultural ritual, a reminder of my british heritage.
I loved the way Christmas made a day extraordinary, simply because we made it so. We dressed differently, we ate differently, we lived differently – out of routine. I could have chocolate for breakfast!
It wasn’t completely perfect, of course. Part of why it was so special was because daily life was quiet.
Without any family in Canada, we didn’t have a busy social life, and so Christmas was a big deal because it was a break in routine.
As an adult, joining a large, often dysfunctional, family with very different traditions was a big shift. Christmas became multiple family celebrations, overwhelming presents, feuds over dinner, and a whole lot of driving.
It was clear that I was not going to be able to give my son the Christmas joy I had, and it took a long time before I could accept this truth. Eventually I found small traditions that we could fit around the extended family – the getting of the tree, the watching of the favourite movie – those would be the special moments for us.
It’s not the extended time out of time that I loved about the holidays of my childhood, but moments of connection that have been a source of fun and family stories.
While I miss the delight of a day of feasting by the fire, what I really value is the moments of connection with my immediate family, and I found a new way to have those moments.
And I have accepted that the way we connect changes over time.
As Silas has grown, the favourite movie has gone from the Muppet Christmas Carol, to Elf, to Die Hard.
There is no one way to have those moments of connection together. And it’s the connections that matter in the end.
It wasn’t easy to get to a place of acceptance, and this season is fraught with expectations and disappointment.
Some of us feel shut out from the general cheer, struggling with grief, loneliness, poverty, trauma, all of which can be made worse by the holiday. For some of us, it isn’t a holiday, it’s more shifts at work. Some of us compare our very real Christmas with our very real family with the advertised Hallmark Christmas of perfection.
All smiles and home baked goods and husbands and wives always love each other and schedules align so that no one has to work and everyone can be together in harmony and the food is perfect and no one is allergic to anything.
Our imperfect realities can’t compete with movie perfection.
Our human families don’t follow the happy ever after movie script.
It’s no wonder this can be the most stressful time of year. That tempers fray, that disappointment abounds, that people feel more lonely than ever.
We hope against hope that this is the year our uncle won’t get drunk and racist, or the kids won’t descend into a shrieking screaming match.
But what if we just lived with acceptance for ourselves and all our relations?
What if we could accept the imperfect holidays we actually have? With our imperfect families and imperfect selves?
I think it begins with self compassion, and caring for ourselves.
I knew a young woman who boycotted Christmas one year – she just didn’t go home or exchange gifts with her family –
she was clear about her choice – she wanted to understand what mattered to her about the holiday.
The young woman had been feeling overwhelmed by the pressure of the holiday – her mother would go crazy baking cookies –
and wanted to know what she would miss by not celebrating.
She found that she missed the day of just hanging out with her brother and her mum, she didn’t miss the presents or the feast, she just wanted playful activities with her family.
The young woman told me the next Christmas was much better, she knew what mattered to her, and she was able to keep her focus on just spending time together, and encourage her mother to relax about the Christmas baking.
Having a clear intention about what mattered to her, helped her manage her family Christmas. And by telling her family what she valued the most, they were able to share what was most important, and negotiate a little better.
If you boycotted Christmas, what do you think you miss?
connecting with your immediate family? Or with friends?
a day of peaceful rest?
the pleasures of the festive feast?
the joy of gift giving?
time to connect with the sacred, the mystery?
Or would letting go be a relief?
At Christmas, I value moments of connection with my immediate family. And I also appreciate the season’s festivities – the candlelight and decorations and the mince pies and gingerbread and eggnog. It’s probably why I am not so good at the gift giving, leaving those overseas gifts so late.
It’s just not the priority for me.
I have found that as long as we watch Die Hard and eat a few homemade mince pies, I can feel like I’ve had Christmas.
If you know what you value most about this holiday season, and keep your focus on that, it can be easier to accept yourself as you are, and your loved ones too.
Knowing what matters to you and practicing self compassion are helpful in any situation, but can be especially important during holiday expectations. It starts with self compassion, as we are often our own worst enemy.
Self compassion has three components:
First, being as kind to yourself as you are to your friends. Refrain from criticizing yourself. We often berate ourselves in ways we would never speak to another person – get your internal voice to be kind.
Second, recognize your own humanity – we are all imperfect and experience pain. It’s normal struggle and suffer even in the midst of festivities.
Finally, self compassion asks for mindfulness. Be aware of all your emotions, be aware of your pain, don’t ignore or exaggerate how you are feeling. Accept where you are. (from Kristine Neff, Self Compassion)
In practicing self compassion – speaking kindly to yourself, recognize your wholly imperfect humanity, and being mindful of your struggles,
you can help yourself to be more at peace with the holidays.
If you can accept where you are at, it takes the pressure off yourself to perform to another’s expectations.
My colleague Meg Barnhouse tells a story about a friend living through her first Christmas without her husband, who had died of cancer that year.
The woman said the idea of Christmas, with family, faith, cheery songs and carollers made her so mad she felt like her hair was on fire.
The pain in her heart clawed to get loose. She was angry all the time.
One afternoon in early December, she bundled up and marched out the door to get a tree.
In the biggest box store in town, lit by fluorescent lights, with trashy canned music, she stomped up and down the aisles until she saw her Christmas tree.
White plastic needles clung to a bent aluminum frame. Gobs of gloppy fake snow clumped on a few of the branches.
On a clearance table were some dull mud coloured ball ornaments, a colour somehow between brown and grey. They were clearly too big for the tree.
It would look awful.
She dragged the ugly tree and the ugly ornaments home and set them up. The whole thing looks sad and downcast.
The spectacle gave her a snarky satisfaction. With the goopy fake snow and dull balls, it was ugly, wrong, out of proportion, unbalanced, and bedraggled.
Perfect. It set the right ironic tone.
At some point, walking pat the tree in the living room everyday, the woman realized the tree actually mirrored her. She wasn’t playing an ironic game with Christmas.
The tree was her heart, and her heart was downcast, unbalanced and bedraggled.
The tree wasn’t trying to cheer her up with false festivity.
It mirrored her sorrow and ugly feelings of being abandoned and out of place.
The tree was became her compassionate companion, standing with her where she was actually at.
She and the tree kept company and made it through Christmas together.
(Meg Barnhouse, “A Good Tree for the Season” in Broken Buddha)
Sometimes we just need to accept where we are at.
To be kind to ourselves first, acknowledging our imperfect humanity, and accepting our feelings as they are.
In accepting ourselves, we might know what we really need.
It might be boycotting Christmas altogether.
It might be buying an ugly tree.
Self compassion is important, especially at Christmas, when the expectations of other can overwhelm us.
This season, I invite everyone to do two things: know what you value about this holiday season and practice self compassion.
Pick one or two priorities and focus on those.
Tell the people you celebrate with what matters most to you.
We will never be free of other’s expectations and needs, nor should we be, but it’s easier to accept our relations as they are, when we stand on the solid ground of our own priorities and values.
It’s easier to feel kinship towards others when we feel kindly towards ourselves.
Refrain from the negative thoughts about yourself. You are doing just fine. You are good as you are.
Recognize that you, like all of us, are imperfect and doing the best we can in the moment.
Don’t beat yourself up.
And finally be mindful, be aware of your feelings – both the upwelling of love and the knife pain of sorrow.
Accept all of your feelings.
May knowing your values and the practice of self compassion help you find your way through this season of light and dark.
As the meditation (by Maureen Killoran) said,
So come, Christmas, most needed of seasons.
Come with the reminder that love does not depend on
Perfection but on willingness to risk connection.
Come into the unready manger of our hearts
That we may feel the warmth of new life
And give flesh to the promise of hope
That cries to bring healing into our world.
Be born in our unready hearts….
So Say we all