This article first appeared in my newsletter December 8, 2016. Click here to sign up to receive my online newsletter.
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Often in mid-December, there’s bustle and activity; some of us excited and happy for the holiday season; some of us feeling stressed and anxious; some of us experiencing both, maybe in the same five minutes.
As I notice myself and listen deeply to others, this year feels different. More than an average proportion of people I know are having a tough time. It’s more than just temporary stress or “having a bad day.” It’s not just shorter days and longer nights or the economy or whatever might have happened lately in our personal lives. This is something deeper.
I think an unusual proportion of us are in the midst of a soul-level transition. We’re not just changing superficially, we’re changing our identity, moving more deeply into we’re-not-sure-what. We’re questioning ourselves, our worth, our place in the world. We’re questioning the world. Some of us are even questioning whether we want to be in the world right now – though it seems to be the only one available to us at the moment.
The opportunity and the challenge. This is something like depression and something like grief and something like extreme self-doubt and something like hopelessness and certainly major transition is going on. Something is trying to emerge.
Many years ago, I was deeply moved by a piece I read by Joanna Macy. For most of her adult life, she’d been a leader, one who could see hope where others only saw impossible challenges. She was used to facing tough situations and finding ways through, inspiring others to join her in making a difference.
For perhaps the first time in her life, she was immobilized. She’d never experienced the kind of black thoughts and feelings she was experiencing. She didn’t even approve of them. One day when she just didn’t know what to do with herself she went into her studio, not even knowing why. She picked up a lump of clay and was mindlessly pummelling it and mushing it around, not even thinking about what she was doing.
The next day she returned to her studio and picked up the lump of clay. And she saw – without realizing it, she had created a piece that depicted new life beginning to emerge. That was the beginning of coming out of the dark place.
And the process she used to move through it? She called it “despair work.” With some challenges, you can work around or over or under or simply turn your back and walk away. But with despair work, she found, the only way out of it is through it. She had to go into it more deeply in order to move through it.
And in the meantime…
If what you’re experiencing feels something like what might be “despair work,” or at least a major transition of some kind…
- Be gentle and kind with yourself. Treat yourself like you would a small cherished pet that is not doing well. Not patronizing or coddling, simply recognizing that today is not a day to expect cheeriness or high energy. Practice as much self-love and self-care as you’re capable of – and forgive yourself if those angry thoughts of self-judgment and self-doubt won’t go away.
- Sit with it as much as you can. I’ve come to the same conclusion as Joanna Macy did. The only way out of this is through it. Don’t try to shake yourself out of it or blot it out or try to cheer up. Simply sit with it. It has often amazed me that when I stopped struggling and simply allowed myself to sit with how I felt, gradually something changed. And always, always – eventually – something deeper and lovely has emerged.
- Trust that it won’t last forever. Really! We are seasonal creatures, with ebbs and flows, highs and lows. Whatever we are experiencing in this moment will change. This too shall pass away.
And on the other side? Not bliss, not exultation, maybe not even happiness – but something very deep and calming. Maybe a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. More inner strength. Maturity, perhaps? I’m not sure what the words are. But I do know that every time I’ve had one of these seasons of deep change, the other side has offered new and different gifts than anything that has come before.
And – if you’re happy and bubbly in this holiday season, enjoy! Savour every delightful moment of it. Find other happy folks and have fun. Play. You too are exactly in the right place at the right time. Be gentle with others who aren’t in your delightful space, but don’t waste one second being less happy than you are!