I often replay this years-old posting around this time. It reported the single most useful insight I've ever experienced, and launched massive changes in my perspective (see links at bottom for further info).
I don't really celebrate Christmas. I guess that's to be expected, considering that my family is nominally Jewish (though I find the teachings of Christ as inspiring as those of any other spiritual tradition, notwithstanding the chunkheads and psychopaths who've commandeered his message over the centuries).
But even an outsider like me can feel so thickly hypnotized by the holiday script of what we're supposed to do and how we're supposed to feel that it's surprisingly hard to get through the day without comparing myself (unfavorably, of course) to the idealized image.
Never mind that no one really lives that idealized image. Even affable families in big creaky houses full of rosy-cheeked children, hot chocolate and earnest singing of carols come up short. Really, the only person having a duly peak holiday experience is some bratty eleven year old who got precisely the PlayStation shoot-em-up game he'd been whining, pining, and begging for since summer. Settled contentedly in front of his screen, blowing up his fellow man in a pleasant flush of adrenaline, he is the only one experiencing the true American holiday spirit. The rest of us feel a little sad this time of year, because real life never matches the image in our head. We never seem to fully achieve Christmas. It's always a miss. Who can possibly live up to the promise of candy canes and Bing Crosby?
But it's a valuable illustration of the central dysfunction in the human experience. Disappointment, pain, suffering, and alienation all stem from the clash of experience, which is real, with mental constructs, which aren't.
Many of us address the problem by trying to force the world to hew to expectation. That is, naturally, a game of whack-a-mole. Utterly futile. Better to drop notions of how things ought to be, and immerse in how things actually are. Let life simply unfurl, and partake of the rich serendipity missed by those trying to muscle their way to a canned result.
Our problems aren't in the world. Problems stem from the conceptualizing. If you stop telling yourself stories about how things are, then life can be enjoyed as-is, rather than in the context of these hollow stories. My favorite book title, "What's Wrong with Right Now ...Unless You Think About It?", says it all.
The holiday season provides a perfect laboratory for exploring all this. Last night, I sat watching a terrific DVD, with a delicious glass of wine, sunk deeply into my comfortable couch. I was warm and well-fed. Yet my mind would periodically flash on the fact that it's Christmas Eve, and suddenly my experience completely shifted. Suddenly, I felt lonely, isolated and missing out. I was actually having a crummy, small, pathetic night, but hadn't realized it until I'd put it all in mental perspective! Hey, thanks, mind!
Each time the mental construct of "Christmas Eve" flashed into my awareness, my present situation instantly reflected against that context...and my mood fell. Each time I opened my eyes and realized how content and snug I actually felt, my mood rose. This repeated several times, an emotional ping-pong match between reality and conceptualizing. Which is real? Why do we feel so attached to the unreal? Why do we willingly live our lives in a haze of abstract mental concepts, rather than in reality itself? Why, above all, do we make ourselves miserable over nothing?
Regardless of what the gurus say, we can never purge the concepts. The human mind can't help concocting them; it's what we do. But we can bear in mind their insubstantiality. A smidge of awareness is tremendously liberating and joy-bringing; as empty concepts fall away, only peace remains.
So all this, I suppose, amounts to my extraordinarily contrarian expression of holiday joy. To experience Christmas, you've got to expunge "Christmas". Peace on earth good will to men, indeed.
Note: This insight (which really has nothing at all to do with holidays, per se) inspired a series of follow-up postings, such as: "Labeling and Post-Processing", "The Stories We Tell Ourselves", and "Depression Resuscitation Kit". Years later, in a mega-posting titled "The Evolution of a Perspective" I tied it all together.
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