Pain, and the True Meaning of Christmas

I will memorialize our past. I will construct goals for my future. I will take pride in the present.

 A text from a friend of mine as we relate on feelings of lack of control and stability during the holiday season. With less than ideal circumstances for Christmas, we aspire to rewrite our holiday narratives on our own terms as we age…

Christmas morning, I woke to my sister by my bedside at the Estill farm house in May’s Lick, gifts in hand. She often wakes before I do and graces me with her presence as I open my eyes, like mom once did.

The Estill and Crain sisters deliberate quickly on which showers to use and in what order we cleanse. I bathed second and quickly readied for Catholic mass.

The youthful priest evangelically told a story to the small congregation that brought me to tears.

During his educational time in Rome he detailed that he ran into a couple while walking to class. He could tell they were American, emeritus, and lost. As he walked with them to their next destination the husband said abrasively that he didn’t want to talk about God. The priest avoided the subject of faith, as the couple spoke selfishly about the pope and asked if they could get tickets to see him.

The priest joked to the May’s Lick congregation that it was a slim possibility. Not every aspiring priest knows the pope. Luck surprisingly on the couples’ side, the priest managed to snag tickets and saw them later the next day after visiting Vatican City.

“Our tickets were in the front row!” The couple said to the priest. “We shook hands with the pope and everything!” Happy for the couple, the priest took them to lunch at the nearest pizzeria.

Husband apologized for being abrasive about not wanting to talk about God. Priest continued to be polite and asked the couple questions about themselves. They were decently wealthy due to the 30 years they dedicated to professions. Money in such bounty they didn’t know how to spend it all, other than travel. They were incredibly distanced from their family. Their children didn’t visit anymore, and they rarely saw their grandchildren.

When the husband got up to go to the restroom, the wife said to the priest, “I hated every bit of those 30 years of my life I lost to my job. I was miserable. Every day of my life. And I did it all for him! I have lost my life all because of that man.”

“Don’t you know that you’ve always had a choice!” Exclaimed the priest, standing, yelling at the woman in the pizzeria. “That this was not the life that God intended for you, your husband, or your family to have!” The husband returned and started aggressively walking to the priest.

“Stop,” she said. “It’s not him, it’s me. It’s us.”

The priest said “Check,” to get himself out of such an awkward situation…

I sat in the church in my full length red coat. Tears streaming down my face as the sun shone through stained-glass windows. I thought of my past. My parents. As if God was speaking to my mom and dad when they divorced, turned to self-annihilation and slowly—throughout mine and Lauralee’s lives—abandoned hope for the continuity of a nuclear family and positive future.

We’re only human.

Christmas annually, for me, is a reflection of discordant memories that seem to laugh atop ongoing harmonies. Many people must feel like this. Expectations in advertisements and on social media inoculate our psyches into what this time period of our lives should look like. How it should feel.

For my friend and I at the beginning of this story—realities of pandemonium invade our present. Trauma from family members lost too soon, addictions so painfully visible and which you are powerless to change.

A few nights ago, my sister, her husband and I watched The Muppet’s Christmas Carol. I find that pattern of narrative—where the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future visit to reason with Scrooge—comparable to the text my friend sent me.

I ask too, what if we memorialize our past, construct goals for our future, and take pride in the present.

Would we then begin to fully embrace and create the life God intended for us?

Within pain, I argue, is where we can find the true meaning of Christmas. Because pain leads us to compassion and understanding, we are able to be emotional enough to cry. To sob. From this source, we can move to a fuller joy, born by the complexities of life.

Like Scrooge who was hardened by his past, but peers into a window to see the mourning of Tiny Tim, we see ourselves in this humanity, and pivot from a sorrowful soul to a place of refuge, stability, and community for those around us.

To finish the story of the couple and the priest, they went home to the United States and dedicated their lives to Christ. I say this not to command that committing our lives to God be the ultimate resolve. That is too forceful from my position. But it does turn me to acknowledge the first step of alcoholics anonymous, which is to admit that we are powerless.

Once we let go of our illusion of control over the passage of time and relationships in this life, do we ironically find this life more manageable, easier to navigate and maintain continuity.

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