This is the time of year when we are supposed to feel peace and joy as we navigate stores looking for perfect gifts, stand on annoyingly long lines at the post office, cook, clean, decorate, wrap hundreds of presents, traipse through crowded airports and anxiously await the arrival of loved ones with whom we will celebrate the holidays.
I hope you feel that sense of peace and joy, but I know that for many of us, it’s a bit more complicated.
Some of us are estranged from family, others are without family altogether and many, if not most, of us have mixed emotions about this time of year.
For many of us, this time of year is a reminder of a significant loss in our lives. Joe Biden’s wife and baby daughter were killed in a car crash fifty years ago this week so his holidays are always marred with sadness and grief.
Life can be, and often is, bittersweet; marked by difficulties as well as happiness and ease.
What is particularly challenging is the expectation that we should be upbeat even when our hearts are heavy. We live in a society that values happiness above all else and urges us to “find” it at all costs.
In her book Bittersweet, Susan Cain offers another perspective. Perhaps our sorrow and pain actually serve an important purpose and ought to be embraced rather than pushed away.
Joseph Campbell believes “we should participate fully in the sorrows of the world.”
I honor this wisdom.
I have learned from personal experience that leaning into our sorrow, as well as our grief, is in fact the only way through it and that there is poignancy and beauty in that darkness that can return us to ourselves.
We know this instinctively.
Think about what you experience when you watch a sad movie or listen to a haunting piece of music?
I know I feel a deeper connection to my soul and to the world.
Ultimately, we are reminded of how fleeting life is and how important it is to be present.
Songs like “Over the Rainbow” and “Hallelujah” touch us in unexpected ways.
How do they make you feel?
What in you do those songs touch?
There’s something universal about them, a longing for a perfect world, a reaching for the heavens, for unconditional love. And there can be a sort of exaltation experienced when yearning.
In the words of Rumi, “the longing you express is the return message. The grief you cry out from draws you towards union.”
It is this drawing towards union that soothes us. We have all felt deep sorrow and we have all longed for perfection. We are bound together by these human experiences. When we allow ourselves to feel the sorrow, we also have the opportunity to experience connection.
The place you suffer is the same place you care profoundly.
In the words of the elegant poet, Naomi Shiyab Nye:
“Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”
So, allow yourself to experience the sorrow during the holidays.
Feel the sadness, the disappointment, even the despair.
Those human conditions are part of who we are.
The ache we feel is often our path to creativity and ultimately to belonging.
I am mourning my dad as I go through this first holiday season without him, while celebrating my son’s upcoming nuptials. I am overcome with sorrow, missing my brother, while observing holiday traditions with my kids and grandkids. I am in pain as I lose a little more of my mother every day, while appreciating the special bond I’ve established with my sister.
Life really is bittersweet.
Alongside the bitter, embrace the sweet.
Alongside the sweet, allow the bitter.
And remember that there’s much to learn from the dark.
It’s how we know and appreciate the light.
John O’Donohue offers these words from his book, To Bless the Space Between Us: “May you know serenity when you are called to enter the house of suffering. May a window of light always surprise you. May you be granted the wisdom to avoid false resistance; When suffering knocks on the door of your life, May you glimpse its eventual gifts.”
And there are always gifts to glimpse.
Look around you.
With love and light,