“Alms for Scrooge!”
I recently heard a man squelch this at someone asking for change on a New York City street. I cringed, at once identifying with the self-named “Scrooge” and also repelled by him. It struck me how often we are selfish (and even cruel) when our intention is simply to be self-preserving, spewing unnecessary venom when all we really need to say is “not today.”
Brusk as we may be with strangers, we are even more so with our families during “the most wonderful time of the year,” adding fuel to the fierce flames of the family-drama-laden “hellidays.”
I’ve already advised you to trim your “Christmas three” and to know your “safe-goat” so as to glide through your holiday-family-inferno unscathed. Now, if you can be self-preserving without being selfish, you may actually enjoy yourself on top of all this — and even have some generosity to spare.
In order to self-preserve, we must first understand this “self” of ours and how the holidays affect it.
The “holidays” — American, secular Christmas in particular — come with a great deal of expectation and disappointment. As children, we are promised an event during which we’ll receive custom-made presents, treats, and magic. In short, we are promised our fantasies. We anticipate receiving everything our parents can’t give us in reality on that one special day. As adults, we learn to temper, bury or extinguish these fantasies — like psychoanalyst Adam Phillips says, we become “ingenious at resisting the lead of our desire” — but when we reassemble with our families at the end of the year, as many regularly and crudely do, we regress. We look to each other to fulfill those old promises, to make those custom fantasies come true, and of course, it never works.
Enter the highly-subjective, often inscrutable, irritatingly-inevitable disappointments, e.g. “This is our year to host.”
“You didn’t go shopping yet?”
“Is he gonna be in the kitchen all night?”
“Is she crying again?”
“Of course we’re going to the movies. We always go to the movies. Why wouldn’t we go to the movies?”
“Um… we don’t allow them to watch Charlie Brown.”
“Thanks, but he already HAS the red truck.”
“You’re leaving already?”
“Sorry, but I’m allergic to cats and gluten and that figgy pudding you make… and I tell you this every year.”
“Can’t you get OVER yourself for one damn day?”
We become drained by the black hole of “their” uniquely-unfulfilled promises and find ourselves too deprived of our own wish-fulfillment to offer even the tiniest of Tiny Tim “blessings.”
This is why some completely avoid family festivities altogether (like Luke Skywalker escape-podding from The Death Star), and in some cases that may be the best option. However, I suggest (whenever possible) that it’s better to be with family on this occasion than not to be. I can tell you with absolute certainty that when we defer family conflict it kindles in our guts, awaiting the backdraft it will eventually become when triggered by a family member — or possibly even a stranger asking for change on the street.
“But,” you might ask, “if our families will reliably burden and disappoint us, how can we tolerate a holiday with them, let alone have a good time?”
Well, the bad news is that not a one of them is going to check off our Christmas list… but that’s also the good news. To a large extent, adulthood comes at the price of childlike fantasy and expectation, but this opens the door to something arguably more liberating: the ability to treat ourselves.
If your dad won’t cook your favorite roast goose, make it for your friends the week before. If your mom always forgets which spa service to put on the gift certificate, pamper yourself to a full-day package. If your brother never has a gift for you, buy yourself the video game you always wanted as a kid but never got. Take a weekend in Puerto Rico, buy some canvases and paints, take the walk or the scenic drive you always postpone, make the crafty ornaments you’ve been thinking of, meditate in the park, take that tennis lesson, or buy that trumpet. There’s absolutely no reason not to indulge yourself with comfort and joy, so long as it’s reasonably within your means and not harmful to you or anyone else (you might reconsider the trumpet if you live in a railroad apartment with paper thin walls).
This of course removes a lot of the pressure to make any dreams come true at the big family event. Think of time spent with the fam as a brief military mission, wherein you’ll be parachuted down to drop off baubles, taste your aunt’s new quiche, ask your sister about her job in person, earn a new nickname from your nephew, offer that Tiny Tim toast, and get helicoptered out before everything goes south. You’ll have a shared experience to fall back on the next time you speak to one of them (instead of awkward silence), and though none of them will know about your wish list, that’s just fine, since you’ll be the one answering it.
Charles Dickens’ infamous character Ebenezer Scrooge actually had it right, to a certain extent: By making and saving money, he understood that one needs to take care of oneself before it’s even possible to take care of anyone else. His problem, of course, was that he didn’t take the next step of investing in his own joy, nourishing his body or his soul (self-preservation) and therefore couldn’t be bothered to take care of anyone else (selfishness). Fortunately, we know better.
Take care of yourself first; be naughty (have a Bravo marathon with your favorite mac and cheese), or nice (adopt an orphaned cat, dog or chinchilla) but spoil yourself like no one else can. You’ll then have the motivation to play a round of Pictionary with your family and the willingness to offer an easy smile, a blessing, or even some change to a stranger in need.