The holidays can be the most wonderful time of the year. They can also carry with them the weight of unmet expectations, the drain of dysfunctional relationships and the vacuous space left by lost loved ones. So how do we navigate the season while we are navigating painful places?
I’ll tell you how I managed during the dark ages in my marriage. I chose numbing. I pretended. I coped with denial. I pressed my way through November and December by steam-rolling my feelings into the ground.
I was already going through the motions. The holidays upped the ante and I had to fake it at another level. Looking back, I realize that faking it left me hollow and the holidays lost their meaning.
Can you imagine a Christmas with no meaning?
Have you ever lived one that way?
Fast forward a few years, add forty-eight weeks of therapy and by the grace of God our marriage was on the mend. The temperatures dropped and yet our hearts were warm. Feelings of love began to burn again. I was waking up once more to good news of great joy.
When life came at my heart one December with a brand new kind of pain I had a decision to make, would I turn to my old familiar habit of shutting down or would I look for a way through?
If you find yourself at a similar crossroads and you are wondering how to be present this holiday season despite difficulty or struggle, I have a few strategies to suggest.
Feel what you feel. Denial is a gift in the short term. It buys us a little time until we find a safe place to process or safe people to process with. But denial is crippling in the long run. The sooner you allow yourself to feel what you feel, the sooner you will find a way to move through the struggle. Remember God created our feelings. They serve an important purpose in our lives. The healthy thing to do is pay attention and then find a way to get your feelings out. Journal. Call a friend. See a counselor. Write a letter you may never send. If you need help owning your emotions read the Psalms – they are full of feelings.
Recognize your needs. When I’m hurting my first instinct is to isolate. I don’t want to need anybody. I don’t want to need anything from anyone. But I’m far better off when I admit my needs. I need someone to hold my hand. I need to laugh. I need to cry. I need a hug. What do you need? Would you be brave enough to ask for it?
Lose the word should. Nothing steals from the potential joy of a holiday more than unrealized expectations, the should be’s or the should have been’s. So stop shoulding! Rather than one rife with expectations, embrace a Christmas that invites you to be expectant. When you let go of the shoulds, it’s easier to imagine what God will do. Life may not look like your plan A. It may really stink right now, but God has something good prepared for you.
“No eye has seen, no ear has heard,
and no mind has imagined
what God has prepared
for those who love him. 1 Corinthians 2:9 NTL
Step into the longing. It’s been helpful during my hard Christmases to celebrate Advent. Advent is all about waiting. It recognizes that all is not well. Something is broken. It aches with hopeful yearning for the promised Messiah. When Christmas has been difficult, I’ve been reminded how desperately I need a Savior and I’m even more grateful for his incarnation.
I heard a sad old country song on a Christmas playlist over the weekend, and it was all about making it through December. Really, it was about making it past Christmas. I get it. I’ve been there. But that’s like taking your road weary, dirt-splattered car to the car wash, hitting the gas and speeding through the tunnel. You can say you made it through, but your car is not only dirty, it’s splattered with some of that rainbow colored soap foam. It’s one mess on top of the other.
There is another definition of the word through which means going in one side and coming out on the other side. It creates time and space for an experience, for transformation. Like driving your same road weary, dirt splattered car through the car wash while allowing time for the soap to break apart the caked on dirt. Waiting as scrubbers beat away the soap and grime. Settling in for a nice long rinse and then slowly moving forward through the jet dry to emerge fresh and ready to take on the road again. That’s a better way to think about getting through the holidays.
We may be going into the season with sadness or pain but there is an other side. Along the way, if we tune in instead of shutting down, we’ll find a Savior, a Mighty God, a Prince of Peace. He meets us there in the messy middle. Whatever we are feeling, Jesus has felt it. Whatever we are facing, the Lord is close. If we tune in, we remember our suffering is why he came. He came to redeem and rescue. So take your road weary, splattered self and feel the promise and provision of Christmas deep in your soul. That is the best way through the holidays.
The Lord is close to the brokenhearted;
he rescues those whose spirits are crushed. Psalm 34:18 NTL
Lynn Marie Cherry is an engaging speaker and the author of Keep Walking: 40 Days to Hope and Freedom after Betrayal an award winning daily devotional that helps women find a way through the pain and trauma of betrayal. After experiencing the detrimental effects of sexual addiction in her marriage, Lynn determined to inspire hope in others and shine a light on the path to freedom. Lynn and her husband David have been married for 26 years. They have two boys. You can connect with her at lynnmariecherry.com.