Written by Ellen Sanders
Today is Thanksgiving Day. On this holiday we are told that we should reflect on the people and things for which we are grateful. We are often asked to focus on what we have rather than what we don’t have. And while the sentiment is lovely and keeping a positive focus can be uplifting, I think it’s just as important to recognize and name those things that are painful and saddening. Avoidance is not a solution, but a tactic that really only prolongs the hurt.
Personally, I am feeling very blessed right now. It has not been an easy year, but I feel like I have grown a lot and have more clarity about myself and how I want to continue growing. I have gone through a second treatment for cancer and am feeling better than I have since my original diagnosis. My husband and children are generally healthy and we are happy together. Not every moment, mind you, that would be unrealistic. But there is love and respect and peace in our home.
However, every holiday season has not looked like this for me. There were plenty of years that I was lost in myself, helpless and hopeless. My depression, anxiety, and addictions isolated me from other people, even the ones that loved me the most. The holidays made me feel worse. The seeming gaiety and constant reminders to be grateful and happy and filled with joy increased my unease and sorrow. The excitement many felt at going to large family gatherings only made me feel tense and awkward. I could put on a false front, but inside I was crumbling.
Over the last couple of days I’ve talked with a couple of friends for whom this Thanksgiving (and for some every holiday) is more about grief than joy. Whether because of death, marital separation, illness, addiction and/or trauma, they are not having the Norman Rockwell holiday. For these friends of mine, tomorrow will look a number of different ways. Most will celebrate the holiday in some traditional form despite their current difficulties. One friend, for whom being with her family is unhealthy for her, decided that instead of trying to enjoy it with friends she would spend the majority of her day by volunteering to serve food to the homeless. There is no right or wrong. These are people, like many others, who are trying to get through a day doing the best they can.
So, what I was thinking is that it’s important that a person not feel like if she’s not entirely joyful this time of year that there’s something wrong. Or, that even if there is some joy, it’s okay if there’s a tangible amount of sadness too. Personally, I think that a person can be grateful for what they have and still be sad about what they don’t have. The two are not mutually exclusive. And as a friend, I don’t have to try to fix or take away the pain another feels. Maybe I just have to honor it and allow my friend to feel it without worry of judgement or fear of being talked out of it. I think if there had been someone I felt I could tell the truth to about my pain it would have been a relief. It wouldn’t have made everything better, but that’s not the point. It would have given me permission to be me and not pretend I was someone else. It just would have helped me feel less broken and alien.
On my journey thus far, one of the greatest lessons I have learned is that there is no way around my feelings. I can try to avoid them or talk myself out of them, but they will not go away. The best thing I can do for myself is to go through a feeling and get to the other side. It may hurt and it may be hard, but it will not kill me. However, the things I have done to myself to avoid having feelings will kill me. It’s when I am able to recognize how I feel, talk about it without shame, and allow myself to be with it, that god’s grace appears. For me, I cannot find grace when I’m pretending, and I cannot find healing if I am not allowing myself to feel hurt.
The other night, a friend of mine said “Life is too short to not be authentic.” Indeed. As important as it is to be loving and supportive to others, it is just, if not more important to be so towards ourselves. This means naming our hurts and feeling them, for then we can move on and heal. It means protecting ourselves from those people who abuse, demean, or diminish our personhood. It means being honest with oneself especially when doing so is uncomfortable. It means finding the people with whom you can do this; who will allow you to feel and will sit with you through it. It means trusting that god wants for you to be who you are, not who you think you should be.
So, instead of wishing you all a Happy Thanksgiving, I wish you a day where your heart may find moments of grace. I wish you peace in the decisions you’ve made and solace in knowing that you are doing the best you can. Sometimes that really is enough.