Tuesday, December 24, 2019

The Deeper Implications of Holiday Blues

After a gajillion postings about perceptual framing, I invite you to revisit this seminal posting from December, 2009, which you've likely read before, to see whether you now view it in a different light.

This was the nudge that led to my finally assembling a coherent and fully conscious understanding of how we use perspective to needlessly delude and torture ourselves. As I read it, now, observing the difficulty I had weighing the comparative merits of reality versus cooked-up mental drama, I barely recognize that guy.

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, and which I later called The Pivotal Slog Posting) 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.


vhliv said...

Sorry for your holiday blues. I have to say having a family, even a small nuclear family, as well as some family specific traditions help give the holiday shape.

In our case in tribute to my wife's Slavic background we have home made herring marinated with onions, oil, and just enough vinegar to give flavor, along with crepes and smoked fish and salmon caviar. In addition we read a retelling of E.T.A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker help out.

But I don't really disagree with your analysis about the illusion of happy idealized Christmasses. In fact, I think the more people try to do live up to that image the emptier the experience is likely to feel once it is over. My only criticism, is that by age 11 Christmas has become almost entirely materialistically focused on getting this or that. Thus my 12-year-old son is happy because he did get the game he asked for, as well as one he loves but did not expect to get. By contrast my 7 year-old-daughter just loved the whole Christmas experience. Sure she got what she wanted and was focused on opening presents, but she also deluded herself that there really is a Santa with reindeer leaving out cookies and "reindeer food." So while I would not recommend starting a family just to get over the holiday blues, I can say that a few rituals and a couple of primary school kids go a long way to making Christmas more pleasurable for every one.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks for posting!

No, I really didn't have holiday blues. The point I was trying to make was that I had a wonderful, relaxing night, which was punctuated by an interesting mental phenomenon. If I'd steeped in it, it would have made me miserable. I didn't. Instead, I steeped in what was actually happening. Which was lovely.

And that was the point of my posting. It wasn't really about Christmas....though, on the other hand, it was very much about Christmas. Only by killing the abstract notion of Christmas can one experience the joy and peace we otherwise strain to attain.

You know what the Zen guys say you should do if you see the Buddha walking down the street!

By the way, "killing" him is a mistranslation. Starchy academics resisted giving the true translation, which is that you should "shit on his head".

Patricia Gay said...
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