When the idea of a happy family gathered around the holiday table or Christmas tree runs smack into the reality of a recent divorce, a kid in rehab, a sibling in jail, a parent with Alzheimer’s in a nursing home, or the death of a family member or friend after a long battle with cancer, a terrible accident or, even, a suicide, it really hurts. Let’s face it, the holidays suck when you or someone you love is suffering, or worse, when someone you deeply loved is gone forever.
So what do we do during holiday time if we are in our own kind of pain that others cannot fully understand? First, be honest. Pop culture and consumerism might not give us permission to acknowledge grief or sadness during the holidays, but you can at least grant that permission to yourself. Tell people you want to keep it low-key this year. Let them know that being around a group of people celebrating only makes things worse. In other words, don’t go.
The year that I was struggling with opioids and depression following spinal surgery, instead of showing up at any number of holiday parties to which I was invited, my wife, two kids and I served Christmas dinner at a homeless shelter in Santa Monica. It felt right to serve others who were also suffering, albeit in a different way. The ancient rabbis knew what they were doing when they forbade mourners to attend weddings and other celebrations for a year. It wasn’t because a mourner celebrating seemed disrespectful to the deceased, but because it was disrespectful to the mourner—an affront to his or her own pain. “The more noble a thing is in its perfection,” observed the sage Yohanan ben Zakkai, “the more ghastly it is in its decay.” The German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn riffed on this ancient insight and added, “A rotted piece of wood is not as ugly as a decayed flower.” It’s true. The further something is in reality from its former, more whole or ideal state, the worse we feel about it. That’s why it’s hard to square people’s Instagram and Facebook identities with our own ordinary and sometimes miserable days. We have fake lives in cyberspace and false hopes for the holidays. We have actual lives too, with our real and often complicated families. Guess which one is ghastly in its decay?
Even putting aside the national funk that has descended upon us in 2017, for a lot of people this year there is a lot to mourn. Many are mourning the death of a marriage. Others are mourning the symbolic death of the hoped-for loving mother who instead finds a subtle way to hurt you whenever she’s in town “so we can all be together.” A business collapse, an embarrassing indiscretion and the public shaming that follows, or just feeling lost and sad—it is grief no matter how you slice it. This year, like every year, the holidays are going to hurt for a lot of people. Dostoyevsky said his greatest fear was that his life would not be worthy of his suffering. Pain is terrible, but it is also an invitation to change. Your suffering is an invitation to say no; and it is an invitation to find the yes behind that no.
So this year say no the holiday table and yes to serving others. Say no to the hellish travel required to migrate upstream for Christmas or New Year’s and say yes to hunkering down with tea, a good book and a warm throw blanket. Say no to the noise and the booze and the calories, and say yes to a quiet, healing walk with a friend who has also had a terrible year. Say no to the shopping and say yes to a charity that needs the money more than Amazon. Say no, I cannot be happy, but, yes, I can still be good and gentle and kind—especially to myself. Say no to pretending everything is ok, and yes to reaching out to the few who really do understand and love you no matter how wounded. To put it glibly but perfectly, the people who mind if you don’t show up for the holidays this year don’t matter, and the people who matter, don’t mind.
Steve Leder is the author of the new, bestselling book, “More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us” and the Senior Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. He was recently featured at the relaunch of our monthly salon series at The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A.