'TIS THE SEASON TO BE GRATEFUL
by Richard B. Patterson
We are once again entering into the holiday season, a time of significant stress for many, a time during which family conflicts escalate, a time when painful childhood memories intrude, a time when loss aches more profoundly. It is a time, too, when we risk losing our spiritual perspective to the pressures of buying the latest toy, the most expensive athletic shoe. In Churches and synagogues, we are often encouraged to focus on that which matters, typically some set of beliefs basic to our religious tradition. But, too often the significance of the birth of Jesus, for example, (which many of us never really think about) pales beside the importance of getting the turkey cooked or getting to the store to see if there are any Elmos left. As such, many of us reach Christmas evening or the conclusion of the Hanukkah season exhausted and depressed. There are two interrelated attitudes which may counteract this tendency and actually make the holiday season meaningful.
One attitude involves maintaining an effort to cultivate memories. Unlike Ralphie of A Christmas Story, I do not have a strong recollection of a particular Christmas gift from my childhood. What I do have are rich memories of family gathered together. Some of the greatest gifts, for example, were the stories told to me by my great Aunt Margaret, she who had been in Paris when Lindbergh landed, she who had seen Babe Ruth play baseball ("Clumsiest man I've ever seen!").
To cultivate memories we must pay attention. I recall when I was a delivering mail one Christmas. I came to an apartment building and found an old man waiting for his mail. I assumed he was annoyed since I was running late. Before he even collected his mail, however, he placed a microphone-like device to his throat and said something filled with static, a complaint undoubtedly. Somewhat annoyed, I asked him to repeat. This man with throat cancer uttered words, I've never forgotten "Merry Christmas. And a Happy New Year," words that humbled me and put much into perspective.
The second attitude which can help this holiday season is to be grateful. Not so much for the gifts but more importantly for the people. Past and present. If we are not in the habit, it can be meaningful for each day from Thanksgiving to Christmas or Hanukkah to spend a moment reflecting on that which we are grateful for. Big things and small things. That which we often otherwise take for granted. Perhaps with such in mind we can reach the new year feeling grateful for new good memories.
Richard B. Patterson is a clinical psychologist in private practice in El Paso, TX. He is the author of three books on psychology and spirituality.
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