Happy Holidays everyone. I hope that your season has gone well, and that you are looking forward to closing out the year. Goodness knows it will be nice to leave 2020 behind. That doesn’t necessarily mean that 2021 will be better - the last few years have reminded me that things can always get worse - but at least this particular flavor of awful will be in the past.
For this week’s 5 things, I will be sharing what I am calling the 5 Days of Christmas. I know that not everyone who gets this newsletter celebrates Christmas, and I use the term not as a particular descriptor of a Christian holiday, but as more of the generic, secular descriptor of the season that it has become. Regardless of your beliefs, we all share a connection with this time of year. Today is the winter solstice, the longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. It has been called midwinter, Saturnalia, and winter festival. It has been celebrated since Neolithic times. It is a part of our collective memory as human beings.
It is a time of year given for taking stock, for reviewing the previous year and preparing for the new one. It is a time for thinking big thoughts about the things that unite us. And this is ever more important in a world that would seek to divide us.
The 5 Days of Christmas are my take on 5 common themes for this time of year. The kinds of one word aphorisms that get painted on a Christmas coffee mug. I want us to look past those kind of surface well wishes and think more deeply about what these things mean.
1st Day of Christmas
When I was a kid, I loved Mr. Rogers. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I still love him. But the reasons I love him as an adult are different than the reasons I loved him as a kid.
I love Mr. Rogers now because Mr. Rogers has taught me more about how to be a good parent than any book, any class, or any person. I grew up without a template for engaged, caring, and healthy parenting. I didn’t know what “right” looked like.
But I had Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, and its successor Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. These shows gave me the vocabulary for teaching empathy. They showed me a path showed me a path to connect with children, one based on mutual respect and appreciation that the the struggles, thoughts, and feelings of children were just as real, just as valid, and just as powerful as those of adults. I learned how to talk to my kids and, more importantly, how to listen.
Let’s be real. I am not Fred Rogers. Those of you who know me know this. My application of his lessons has been - at best - scattershot. I have failed to follow his model at least as many times as I have been successful. And even as I type this I can literally hear his voice in my head. I hear him saying that I tried, and that’s what’s really important. I hear him telling me that it is okay.
I hear him saying I am okay.
And as a kid, this was the power of Fred Rogers for me. Like most kids of the 70s and 80s I was raised by TV as much as I was parents. And even years later after I had become a dad my mom would talk about the fact that the one way she could always get me to calm down was to make sure Mr. Rogers was on. It was the only time she knew I would give her, in her words, a moment’s peace.
My childhood was chaotic. Things were constantly in flux. There was noise and yelling and constant confusion about how to act and how to be. I responded in kind. My behavior reflected the chaos that defined my life. I was hyperactive and angry and never ever still.
Except for Fred Rogers.
Mr. Rogers was the exact opposite of all that. He was consistent. And not just in the way he came in and slipped on his sweater and sneakers and then fed the fish. Not just in the way he said the same things in the same way. It was deeper. HE was consistent. He was the same person every day. He was gentle and he was kind and he cared about me.
I always felt peace when he was on screen. I could be calm. I could be quiet. I could just... be. Even as an almost 50 year old man with my own kids, more than half of whom are adults now, I still feel peace just thinking about Fred Rogers. Just remembering all the times that he was the calm in the chaos, all the ways he was my eye in the storm.
In an interview given years later, Fred would say: “When I say it's you I like, I'm talking about that part of you that knows that life is far more than anything you can ever see or hear or touch. That deep part of you that allows you to stand for those things without which humankind cannot survive. Love that conquers hate, peace that rises triumphant over war, and justice that proves more powerful than greed.”
During this special Christmastime week, I am comforted again my Fred Rogers. I am reminded that we are bigger than our moment, that pain and danger and fear are not the only things.
Even in the noise of the season, there is quiet. Even in the rough discord of this political moment, there is a place for gentleness. Even in the chaos of 2020, there remains space for peace. Fred Rogers taught me that. And now I lovingly remind you.
Because it’s you that I like.
2nd Day of Christmas
I say “I love you” a lot.
I say it to my wife. I say it to my kids. I say it to my friends. Sometimes I say it to people I barely know. Once I said it in a bar to an old man I had just met.
Every time I have ever said it, I really and truly meant it. I maybe didn’t always mean it in the way that people hearing me thought I did. But I always mean it when I say it.
I think that part of the problem is that we have an impoverished way of talking about love. We are limited by language. The ancient Greeks had multiple ways of talking about love. There was eros (romantic / sexual love), philia (deep friendship), philautia (love of self), agape (empathetic love for others), and several others. Each carried a different way of understanding love. We only have the one word. We are limited in how we express the many sided emotion of love.
There are times when this limitation has greater impacts than others. When I told the old guy at the bar I loved him, I meant that I loved his spirit, his moxie, the way he told a story. I did not necessarily mean that I wanted to move to Connecticut with him, settle down, and open a bed and breakfast. Although, never say never, right? Because we only have one word, though, I am sure that some of the other bar patrons were completely confused. At least that’s what their looks suggested.
This time of year, we hear the word love a lot but, like so much else around the holidays, it feels like the concept has been completely co-opted to sell us shit we don’t need. We are bombarded with ads that tell us which toys to buy to make our kids love us, which jewelry will ensure that our spouse loves us, and lots of ads suggesting that the only way we can be truly certain that someone loves US is if there is an SUV with a big ass bow on it waiting for us Christmas morning.
This is all, of course, complete bullshit. I think that when it comes to love, most of the time we have lost the plot. We are collectively confused about what love is.
Love is sacred. Love is dear. Love is what binds us one to another. It is what binds us to our shared reality and our common fate. Love is the way we express the power of our connection to one another.
One thing love is not is precious. It is not in short supply. There is no scarcity of love, it is not something that should be hoarded or limited. It is a gift that should be freely and copiously given.
This holiday season, I challenge you to tell someone you love them. Not your spouse or your kids. Not your best friend. Tell your neighbor. Tell the guys who get your trash. I mean, who doesn’t love the guys who haul the trash away? Tell a stranger at a bar. Spread love, feel love, and let love surround us.
Goodness knows that we have had enough darkness and division and hatred for several dozen lifetimes in the last 12 months.
Love may not be the complete answer to all the things that challenge us. But it is damn sure a good rough draft.
And if it doesn’t work, there’s always that BnB in Connecticut.
3rd Day of Christmas
When I was in 4th grade, I had mono. For 3 weeks I was stuck at home, in my room. I couldn’t go to school, play with friends, or even leave bed very much. I remember hating feeling so cooped up, and resentful of being forced to stay in bed all day every day. Of course, now that sounds like paradise and I kind of wish I could stay in bed for 3 weeks. Without a communicable disease, of course. But as a hyperactive 9 year old, it was basically hell on earth.
Books helped me survive my convalescence. There was a great big illustrated collection of Children’s Stories from the Bible that was full of these highly realistic detailed drawings of things like the burning bush and Jesus walking on water. There was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and A Wrinkle in Time. But my favorite, by far, was Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein. God I loved that book. I must have read it and re-read it a dozen times. It was so different than what I was used to reading, and it felt so transgressive which was something that appealed to me even then. My “mono time” made me a Shel Silverstein fan for life.
Later I read Silverstein’s The Giving Tree and I remember liking it too. Or at least I remember liking Shel Silverstein and therefore liking everything that he had a hand in creating. After all, he was the guy who saved me from mono when I was 9. That’s how I remembered it anyway.
A few years ago, I saw The Giving Tree at a local bookstore and bought a copy. I thought I would share it with Justin and pass along some Silverstein love to the next generation. When we got home I opened it up and read it for the first time in years.
Holy hell does that book suck.
To refresh your memory (and for those who haven’t read it), The Giving Tree is about, well, a tree. A tree and a boy. The boy grows up with the tree, playing on it and eating the apples the tree produces. As time goes on, the relationship between the boy and the tree changes. The boy spends less time with the tree, and soon only comes when he needs something from the tree. The boy eventually takes almost everything from the tree, leaving only a stump. And at the end of the boy’s life, he even uses that too, sitting on the stump to rest at the end of his life.
In one reading, the tree has practiced selfless, unconditional love. The tree has given every last part of itself to give the boy the things he feels he needs to live and grow, even when that costs the tree literal parts of itself. At almost every point, the tree declares that it is happy. Happy to give the boy what the boy wants. That is probably how I read it as a child.
I don’t read the story the same way now. Instead of seeing a giving tree, I see an abusive, selfish man who simply takes without ever giving any consideration to the impact his choices are having on the world around him. Instead of seeing a boy, I see a narcissistic asshole. Instead of seeing an act of selfless love, I see a codependent tree without the ability to fight back against the exploitation they are experiencing. It reads now like a story of abuse. One I have lived and had to pick up the pieces from, even to the point that it almost took my life.
Yeah. The story hits differently now.
During the Christmas season we hear a lot about giving. We hear that true joy is in giving. That it is better to give than receive. But, like love, I think that sometimes our language does us a disservice. We aren’t able to fully capture the complexity of what we mean.
I believe in selfless service. I believe in unconditional love. And I also believe that we are doomed to unhappiness if we do not also give these things to ourselves. Giving is part of loving. It is part of being in community. It is part of faith, and of joyful participation in the sorrows of the universe. And giving can become a path for self-abuse. It can become a way to deny ourselves what WE need because we have become convinced that we don’t deserve anything. I am all for giving. I do it every day. All day. And. You can not give until there is nothing left for you. You should not give until you have been reduced to a stump, and even then give yourself willingly to be sat upon.
It is Christmas time. And gifts can be a blessing. Just make sure that they are a 360 degree blessing. Be a giver. Beware of becoming a giving tree.
4th Day of Christmas
I used to hate the question “what makes you happy?” I mean, I am still not a huge fan, but at least I have some idea how to answer it now. For most of my life I had no idea.
When you grow up with a parent who has mental illness (especially when that mental illness is narcissism) you don’t get much focus on what brings YOU joy. The child of a mentally ill parent spends most of their time doing anything possible to make sure that everything in the parent’s life is as smooth as possible. Because if they are happy you at least have a chance to be not miserable. Eventually what you call joy is simply the absence of something terrible.
When my mom was good, when her narcissistic self-image was in tact, she was wonderful. She was gregarious and outgoing. She was able to connect with the people around her. She was generous and fun to be around. One of her friends once told me that when they went out that every guy wanted to date my mom and every woman wanted to be my mom. She could hold the attention of an entire room. She needed to hold the attention of an entire room.
When she was not well, when her narcissistic self-image was threatened, she turned petty and mean. She would push away or attack anyone who talked about reality in her presence. She would only listen to what she wanted to hear. She would sow division, create discord, and do anything - anything - to shift the focus back to her needs and her feelings. It often fell to me to be the one who helped create the image she wanted to see. And it was exhausting.
I lost the capacity for joy, at least in any meaningful sense. Joy was simply the absence of my mom’s drama. It wasn’t constructive, it wasn’t independent. So if someone asked “what brings you joy?” I would lock all the way up. I literally had no idea.
Over the last few years I have been able to start to find things that bring me joy. What I have learned on that journey is that joy is all around us. It is everywhere, all the time. We don’t always see it, but it is always there. It’s like oxygen. And in many ways, it’s just as important.
We don’t always see joy because we are often looking for something big. Some grand gesture of beauty or transcendence. Those moments happen, to be sure, but they are rare and precious. Joy lives in a million places at once. It is in the way light catches a leaf, the way a piece of art hangs just so, the faded edges of a favorite book. Joy lives in kid’s laughter and in happy tears and in poignant goodbyes.
Joy fills every moment of our lives, even when we are blocked from seeing it, and even when the noise of our lives drowns it out. It is still there. Like gravity.
The journey of my life has been a journey to seeing the joy that has always been there.
What makes me happy? All the things. The things that make me sad, and make me afraid, and make me anxious. Joy is still there. The things that make me smile and make me laugh and make me shake my head. Joy is there too.
In this season, I hope you find joy. And I hope you can see it everywhere you look. It is there. Hold my hand. We will look together.
5th Day of Christmas
One of our family’s favorite Christmas movies is The Polar Express. It is kind of weirdly animated, and spends more than a little time in the uncanny valley, but the story is wonderful. And it’s got Tom Hanks so you know it’s good.
One of the elements of the movie, and the book on which it is based, are the bells. Those who truly believe in Santa and the Christmas spirit can hear them. Those who don’t believe can’t hear. Hearing the bells requires hope.
Hope shares common DNA with faith. One of my favorite verses in the King James Bible (which I will always appreciate as literature, if not scholarship) is Hebrews 11:1 in which the writer tells us that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” I love that. I think the Christian Bible is at its best when it focuses less on polemics (like wives obeying husbands) and more on the simple truths of the human condition. Like hope.
The passage resonates because it is true. What is hope but the promise of things not yet seen? Hope is future tense. It is focused on things that haven’t happened yet. Even more, it dares create expectations for what the future might hold.
The Buddhist in me absolutely recoils at the whole idea of expectations. Hope creates an attachment to an unsure future. In the wrong hands and in the wrong context hope can easily become toxic. It distracts us from the present moment. If we are focused on hoping for the future then we aren’t in the moment. Hope is scary.
And I hope anyway.
We have been through a lot this year. We have seen illness and loss and isolation. We have seen struggle and division and rancor. Whatever the “Christmas spirit” may be, 2020 has been it’s opposite. And despite all that we have been through, I still have hope.
I still have hope that we can be better than our worst impulses. I still have hope that we can embrace a world of peace and shared commitment to the future. I have hope that we can find and embrace the better angels of our nature. No matter how improbable, how deluded, naive or... whatever... I still believe. And I hope. I still look for the evidence of things not yet seen.
I know from personal experience that when nothing else remains, when everything dear has been cleared away, when you hit rock bottom and look around there is only one thing that can make you climb back up. It isn’t love for yourself or other people. It isn’t someone telling you to get up. When you are down there in that hole the only thing that is left is hope. Hope makes you climb. Hope is with us when nothing else is. Hope IS us. Hope is what makes us human.
Hope makes us hear the bells.
I hope you will hear the bells today. And all days. Now and forever.