And all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. There's not a person in our Western culture alive today who wasn't brought up hearing or reading Clement Clark Moore's poem from 1823, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas." Regardless of your religious beliefs and traditions, the spirit of warmth and generosity of the season can't help but touch all but the most broken of hearts. I think it's important to note that absolutely none of us has escaped life's great transitions and traumas without some woundedness and brokenness. At some level, as we pass through the transition of the year, a part of us must connect with the images of abject poverty that appear so often in the traditional seasonal stories. Despite all that we have, despite all our personal successes, there remains a corner of our soul that, especially today, needs a hug.
When I was small, we had a cat named Boots: a sturdy black fellow with pure white paws, a white nose and a white star on his chest. He was fluffy, part angora, with a plume of a tail. One day we discovered that Boots had an infection in one of his eyes. It was weeping and rather a mess. In the bathroom, my mother held Boots gently and cleaned off the signs of infection with warm water and a soft cloth. Boots struggled, but only half-heartedly. He went after my mother's hands with his claws, but was careful not to scratch. He opened his mouth to bite, but didn't sink his teeth in. At the same time that he was in pain, he know that Mom was trying to help him; so he let her know that it hurt, but never hurt her back. In a very short time, the eye healed and Boots was as good as new, but the lesson made a big impression on me.
It's during these times of transition (between childhood and adolescence; between adulthood and maturity; and between a roaring economy and a recession) that we feel more acutely our most secret woundedness. These appear so often as free-floating anxiety: fears, distress and anger that just seem to have little or no cause that we can readily determine. Like Boots the cat, we may yowl, put out our claws and bare our fangs at those around us: many time, those who have our welfare most consciously in mind. It may be, for you who are in transition, that the best you can do this holiday season is to retract your claws and don't allow the teeth of your anger to sink into those whom you really love . . . no matter how hurt or angry you may be. Keep in mind that the harsh words you don't say never need to be retracted. A good rule of thumb (particularly when you're in pain) is restraint of pen and tongue. This one little guideline could save so many occasions where you may be forced to eat crow.
Like Boots the cat, the distress that you may feel (and that may become so heightened during the holiday season) comes from the wounds within you that are stinging, not from anything that anyone is doing to you. When you ignore your own sense of poverty, when you pretend that you're a victim of someone else's thoughts, words, or deeds, you only succeed in deepening your own sense of isolation and alienation. You may be deepening your own pain by striking out at those around you. Having to live with remorse and regret only piles pain upon pain, emptiness upon emptiness, poverty upon poverty. All this is so avoidable, if we could only learn to say, instead, 'Ouch! I hurt!' to those we love.
Love: that amorphous word that brings us into such deep intimacy with one another, and yet can be the tool of such profound separation. If I had one prayer, it would be that no one would ever again say to another, 'I love you, but I'm not in love with you.' That's the ultimate treason of the midlife passage: identifying the decision to connect one life to another in intimacy to how you may be feeling toward that other at any given moment. Can you recognize that your loss of a sense of affection may be percolating up from a loss of a sense of affection toward yourself? Could it be that your feelings of anger and betrayal toward the one you say you love is rooted in a sense of anger and betrayal at how you've managed your own life? In midlife, that's an extremely common occurrence. Sensing your own poverty, you unconsciously strike out at everyone and everything that reminds you of your pain. Yet, your anger may be pushing away those very people whom you most need right now.
It's the night before Christmas. The stockings are hung by the chimney with care. All you require now is an open heart to serve as the open hearth to welcome St. Nick. Would you be surprised to learn that the Spirit of the holidays that can sooth your poverty, your woundedness and your pain is actually with you every day. It's just that, during the holidays, we get a very special gift: the opportunity to perceive it just a little more clearly ("A right jolly old elf") and to welcome it just a little more consciously than we may do at any other time of the year. "Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night!"