Ask yourselves, “What can I do to create a memory that I might treasure for life?”
by Michael J. Gerson
After several false starts at writing this editorial from the perspective of a psychologist and professor, I began wondering, “Who needs another article about the holiday blues?” With the evening news continuing to stream incessant reminders of violent tragedies, political battles and the latest evidence of climate change, there are also seasonal human-interest stories of charity and acts of kindness. Undoubtedly, the holiday season is a time for reflection, gratitude and forgiveness. As another year comes to a close on Tuesday, it is a time to make plans with family and friends, reaffirm our connection to faith, and make New Year’s resolutions.
Yet, still another holiday tradition has become the public service announcements and advice columns about the holiday blues by mental health experts. As a member of that tribe, I feel obliged to remind the reader that there are many among us who are likely to experience the holidays in a state of hopelessness, sadness and estrangement. Camouflaged by festive decorations and lights, there are some who face a reality of domestic violence, poverty and dread. Perhaps this contrast between the public appearance of joyfulness and a private experience that might be quite the opposite is what triggers the blues. Whereas many children enjoy the holidays with excitement and optimism, there are also those who feel left out and alone. Parents who may not be able to lavish gifts on their loved ones may, likewise, feel distraught and inadequate. We could blame the problem on commercialism or media hype, but the collective expectation of happiness is certain to marginalize those for whom happiness feels impossible. All year long, we hear and see stories like these, so do we really need another reminder of these hardships? Reminders such as these do help motivate beneficence and gratitude, at least temporarily. The more difficult question is how to remember beneficence and gratitude the rest of the year.
I thought, therefore, that I would try to inspire the reader with the story of my WORST holiday experience. When I was 15 years old, I faced the holiday season with profound dread. Earlier that year, my mother and grandmother had passed away. My father had died four years earlier. My 19-year-old brother and I were completely alone and on our own. We lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment supporting ourselves with minimum wage jobs and a small Social Security check. I worked as a busboy and my brother worked at a hot dog stand. We were barely scraping by financially, but we were together and determined to survive. Also during that time, the Vietnam War was at its peak, so we were in constant fear of my brother being drafted. We lived with that tension and our shared grief while doing the best we could to conceal it from teachers and employers.
One evening, perhaps Christmas Eve, I was waiting at the bus stop in front of the hotel where I worked. The bus wasn’t due for another half an hour, so I decided to splurge on a box of See’s Candies nuts and chews, a family favorite. I boarded the unusually crowded bus with the chocolates under my arm. As I rode along, I imagined an anthology of stories about the people on the bus. As it was late, there were no other children on the bus, just an array of people either going home or heading to work the graveyard shift. I noticed one man, in particular, sitting next to the rear exit of the bus. He appeared to be middle-aged, clearly poor, and deeply sad. I thought for a moment that someday that could be me — the inevitable outcome of a “deprived childhood.” When my stop came close, I walked to the exit and saw the man look at me with half a smile. I gave him my See’s Candies and wished him (and myself) a merry Christmas. That year proved to be my most TREASURED, worst holiday ever! What was yours?
Ask yourselves, “What can I do to create a memory that I might treasure for life?” In each of our lives, we encounter others who are never truly seen or acknowledged. There are people for whom we have inattentional blindness, a blindness that comes from ignoring. Consider the supermarket checkers and baggers, the trash collector and the fast-food employees who we expect service from but are rarely acknowledged, except for when we are critical of them. I believe that the best prevention of the holiday blues is intentional kindness — simple acts of compassion, recognition or encouragement that remind both parties that they are not alone, that they matter, and that they have the power to transform lives. I’ll never know anything more about that man on the bus I met so many years ago, but I do know that he lives in my mind, as I may have lived in his.
Michael J. Gerson is an associate professor and director of the Master of Science in Counseling Psychology Marriage and Family Therapy Program in the Graduate School of Psychology at California Lutheran University.