The Gift of Humility: Holiday Stress Reliever

The holiday season can be stressful. I’d love to be able to host a delightful Christmas party, bake delicious cookies, make excellent gift choices, send inspiring cards, decorate like an interior design pro, and create world peace. However, I’m not capable of all of that and if I don’t reduce my expectations to a realistic level the “most wonderful time of the year” will become the most anxiety-ridden time of the year.

Seeing “It’s the most wonderful time of the year” on several festive decorations caused me to look up who wrote the song with that title. I found out it was written by two men – Edward Pola and George Wyle. I can’t confirm this, but I’m guessing they never worried about holiday baking, gifts, decorating, greetings, or event planning.

I wonder if Ed and George were ever concerned about being alone at Christmas or not being invited to holiday parties. For some of us, it’s the loneliest time of the year because it seems everyone has happy families and friends to party with . . . except us. We feel pressured to be happy and that makes us unhappy.

The lyrics of the song read like something out of a Hallmark movie, and I do enjoy Christmas shows now and then throughout the holiday season. I love gazing upon the perfectly decorated homes and neighborhoods in the movies. The characters always have some disagreements and misunderstandings, but I rest assured knowing all will be forgiven by the end of the show. Often an episode ends with a gorgeous couple taking a sleigh ride through something that’s supposed to look like snow, and I feel content knowing they will live happily ever after. But then I switch off the TV. The kind, beautiful people have vanished and it’s just me and my undone to-do list.

 I googled, “What is the most stressful time of the year?”  The holiday season was the overwhelming first choice. A OnePoll survey found that 88% of Americans thought holidays were the most stressful time of the year.

The holiday season comes when daylight hours are at a minimum, temperatures are icy, and spring seems way too far away. At this time of year, we need a holiday very badly to cheer us up, and that won’t happen if we’re too stressed. We need to be enjoying as many Hallmark moments as possible. That’s where humility comes in.

Some dictionaries list “meekness,” “unassertiveness,” and “submissiveness” as synonyms for humility. But spiritual humility is the opposite, because it means the willingness to accept, and the ability to clearly perceive, one’s strengths and weaknesses. It takes some daring to let go of the idea that we need to do all those things we think we should do, and instead discern what we are capable of based on who we genuinely are and what gives us joy. People may not approve.

Think about what you truly love about the holiday season and decide what helps you make the shortest daylight hours of the year more livable. Remember that you’ll be receiving all sorts of ads and messages about what you need for a Merry Christmas and ignore as many as possible.

Maya Angelou advised, “If you’re always trying to be normal you will never know how amazing you can be.” That’s why humility is such a gift. Humility is accepting the ways we can’t meet society’s norms and rejoicing in the ways we can share our own unique gifts and talents. If we spend Christmas preparing treats for our dog and the squirrel that somehow found its way into our home, so be it.

The Japanese have a word, wabi-sabi, that means “finding beauty in imperfection and impermanence.” That isn’t an easy task because we want things to be perfect and may fear criticism and feel ashamed when we are unable to meet standards we believe are vital to belonging and respect. But I’ve found that an imperfect dinner or performance is just as satisfying as a perfect one when the people involved are filled with a joyful, loving spirit.

Humor can also help get us through a less than perfect holiday season. My mother had a plaque that I inherited with a saying that most likely helped her survive and thrive during many a holiday season. It read, “Blessed are we who can laugh at ourselves, for we shall never cease to be amused.”  Human beings are perfectly imperfect if we can be compassionate and take ourselves lightly. Laughter and humility are great companions and are all about the freedom of letting go and enjoying life – and the holiday season – in all its craziness.

There are many enticing holiday activity choices. But if I choose too many of them, it becomes like overeating. Sure, all the food is great, but the more I eat, the less delicious the food becomes. I need to choose what not to eat orI risk ruining what could be a very satisfying meal. During the holidays I need to realize I can only handle so much before I face diminishing returns.

We can choose what we want to worry about, too. Have you ever asked or been asked, “Are you ready for Christmas?”  When I’m asked that question, I answer, “I’m enjoying the beautiful lights and decorations as well as the music.” I want to delight in the holiday season, not prepare for a single day’s event.

I want to have the humility needed to be comfortable with the limitations of what I can cheerfully accomplish in the darkest weeks of the year. And I also want to do my part to spread light and warmth during a time that can seem bleak and cold. If I’m stressed and worried about being ready for Christmas and whether or not my Christmas will measure up to that of others, I may find myself on Santa’s naughty list with my inner Scrooge annoying those around me.

Humility truly is a gift to enjoy. The holiday season will very likely not go as planned and that’s just fine. Humility means letting go of expectations and opening up to the unexpected – to the mysteries and the magnificence of a holy time devoted to love and what’s beautiful about being human.

The most wonderful time of the year is whenever we can share our blessings generously, and gratefully rejoice in whatever kindnesses we are fortunate enough to receive.

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

Tough Paths Lead to Beautiful Destinations: Choose Forgiveness

I was asked to give the message at my church, Canyon Lake United Methodist, Rapid City, SD, and what follows are the stories and words I shared to express why forgiveness is a life-giving practice. If you wish to listen to the service that was focused on forgiveness follow this link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRz3CsyYg_A or check out CLUMC’s website or Facebook page.

Have you ever noticed that in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” follows right behind “give us this day our daily bread?” I think it’s because forgiveness and bread are both life-giving and both are needed daily.

I know I make mistakes and do things I wish I hadn’t or wish I had on a regular basis. If I can’t forgive myself, or others, for simply being human, I’ll waste a lot of time and energy being angry and ashamed. Forgiveness allows us to spend more time smiling than frowning, being relaxed instead of tense, moving forward instead of backward.

I personally know how life-giving forgiveness can be and I chose to research forgiveness for my doctorate in psychology. I did qualitative research, meaning I analyzed stories and looked for patterns and themes in those stories. I interviewed people from different sacred belief systems who had forgiven a major transgression and looked specifically for what their stories had in common. I feel very blessed because I was led to people whose stories were insightful and their stories continue to inspire me today.

Forgiveness means different things to different people, so I like to start by explaining what I mean by forgiveness. First, forgiveness is NOT excusing, condoning, or ignoring bad behavior. It’s the opposite. It’s like Micah 6:8. We’re to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Forgiveness means balancing justice and mercy and remaining humble as we walk with our loving God.

It means having the courage to uncover and confront destructive thoughts and feelings so we can let go of our shame, anger, bitterness, and resentment. That takes time, but it’s worth it because when we experience genuine, deep forgiveness our health improves, our relationships become healthier, and we learn and grow spiritually.

The forgiveness experiences of the people I interviewed had four things in common that helped them forgive, and I call them the 4Cs: connections, courage, compassion, and creativity.

Connections

I first want to talk about connectionsbecause connections make the other 3 Cs possible. Connections are what led the people I interviewed from being victims to becoming forgiveness heroes. None of them were able to forgive without help. They all described spiritual, religious, or social connections that gave them two main things: support and guidance.

So how did their connections support them?

First, they did not pressure anyone to forgive. Pressure to forgive can backfire. Why? Because it can make someone feel worse. If you’re struggling to forgive and someone tells you, “Just let it go,” they’ve added to your shame, to your angst – because deep down you can’t do what they want you to do, what you may think a “good” person is supposed to easily be able to do. If you want to please someone, maybe even God, you may pretend to forgive and deny your genuine feelings. But holding your pain inside and trying to please others will add to your stress and hurt your health.

After I did a talk on my book, Being Human Is Hard: Choose Forgiveness, a man came up to me and said he appreciated the book and he surprised me with why. He was struggling with forgiveness issues and it reassured him to hear that genuine forgiveness of something major is difficult and takes time.

Connections are important because they provide support and also because they provide guidance. They show us the way through the forgiveness process and serve as role models.

One of the stories in my book is about William (pseudonym), who was Lakota and grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. He and his family had experienced horrible acts of prejudice and trauma; William became resentful and as can happen if we’re filled with bitterness, he took his hurt out on others. His major turning point came when he heard Black pastors speak about their painful experiences, which he felt were even worse than his. One had helplessly watched his sister be set on fire and burned to death by prejudiced people who were never punished. “How were you able to forgive?” he asked them. And they said, “You talk about it, and you pray about it.” When William had trouble forgiving, he thought about the Black pastors, read the Bible, prayed, talked to his pastor and the people in his church.

We don’t have to do forgiveness alone, and that’s what helps us with the second C, courage.  

Courage

Forgiveness work takes courage because it means becoming vulnerable. It means uncovering and confronting things that may be shameful, embarrassing, humiliating, traumatic.

One of the people I interviewed, Katherine, said, “Before I discovered forgiveness I wasn’t open enough and willing to admit mistakes. I would have unknowingly kept secret certain things that would have been the heart of what needed to be heard and I wouldn’t have been able to get to the healing part. I wouldn’t have been able to see another’s viewpoint because I would have been too busy protecting my ego. Now I try to remember that it’s not all about me.”

Katherine had a strong connection to God and could feel the Holy Spirit within her. She said, “I’m always praying for the courage and strength to face forgiveness issues because I know that even though it’s scary, I will feel so liberated, relieved, and joyful to be a part of something that is healing.”

Sometimes we need the courage to listen to a perspective that’s different from our own and may seem threatening. At other times, in order to forgive, we may need to have the courage shown by the first person I interviewed for my research, a woman I called Esther, who taught me the importance of standing up for yourself and setting boundaries.

Esther was working in construction with men who didn’t appreciate women and she was being taken advantage of and disrespected. She grew resentful and extremely angry, and at first, she kept it inside. But one day she’d had enough and set some firm boundaries. I asked her how that helped her forgive. She said, “Once I set my boundaries and felt safe, I experienced an expanding of space. I started being able to see more deeply into my offender’s situation and I could better understand him. Releasing my fears allowed me to open up and have compassion.”

Once Esther felt safe, she could see her offender as a human being, instead of an object of hurt.

At a church conference this summer one of the speakers said, “I supported my addiction by blaming my parents.” He had what everyone would consider horrible parents, but he knew that he couldn’t serve God and help others unless he  accepted his imperfect childhood and figured out how to move beyond his past.

We may be a victim of oppression and someone else’s bad behavior and that’s awful. But we’ll never become empowered and liberated if we get stuck in victim status. To get unstuck, sometimes we need to set firm boundaries or possibly even walk away from a relationship that is harmful. At other times, we may need to swallow our pride and have the courage to really listen to perspectives that are uncomfortable. Those forgiveness issues are tough and require not just courage, they also require the third C, compassion.

 Compassion

Courage and compassion are best buddies because it’s hard to be kind when we’re in pain. It’s hard to be loving and grace-filled when we’re hurting.

But opening our hearts and minds to compassionately understanding ourselves and those who hurt us is a key to forgiveness.

Martin Luther King Jr. said:

He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us, and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.

We sometimes like to think of ourselves or others as either all good or all bad – it’s simpler that way – but that leads to forgiveness problems. We may refuse to believe anything good about someone who’s hurt us. When we do something hurtful, we may blame others because we are afraid our wrong action means we’re a bad person. Or we may retreat in shame and miss the opportunity to share our gifts and talents.

A Muslim man I called Basil forgave the person who tortured him and it definitely wasn’t easy. But he had compassion for his torturer, and that helped. He said, “I felt like he was a poor guy. I looked at him like he really, really needs help. From my experience with him, he was always worried, always wondering. He had this weird feeling he was not safe, and he wondered which one of his friends would betray him.” Basel was physically tortured in prison, but Basel realized his torturer had created a personal prison in his own mind and was letting his paranoid, fearful thoughts torture him.

When people hurt us, it’s natural to become bitter and resentful. But I remember the words of the Lakota woman I interviewed who had amazing compassion and forgave the people who murdered her mother and pregnant sister. She said, “No one can make me hate.”

I love that because hate isn’t good for us. Hateful, unforgiving thoughts can torture us. They keep us from experiencing the life Christ wants for us. I asked one of the women I interviewed why she thought God wanted us to forgive. She said simply, “Because it’s good for us.”

Forgiveness frees us and helps us give to others. Have you noticed that the word forgiving can be separated into for and giving? Forgiving is for giving because when we break free from the chains of bitterness or shame we can give more to others.

But forgiving a major transgression isn’t easy because it requires us to write a new, improved chapter in our life story. We need help from the fourth C, creativity.

Creativity

Forgiveness is about learning from our painful experiences. It’s about adjusting our perspective and transforming our thoughts so that we can create a healthier, more peaceful and joyful way of being.

James, brother of Jesus, experienced tough times with a great attitude. In James 1: 2-4 he advises us:

Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

Wow, that’s awesome inspiration, though I must admit I think considering trials of any kind nothing but joy seems a bit over the top.  I do agree that what makes forgiveness possible is knowing that tough paths lead to beautiful destinations. I don’t know why some of our best learning experiences involve humiliation, embarrassment, disappointment, and pain, but if we can accept that inconvenient truth, I know we are on the road to more joy, love, and peace.

We’re all on a journey and we’re all at different places on our journey. I often remember the words of Valerie, one of the woman I interviewed. She said, “We’re all on our own paths.” That’s so true, but often so hard to accept. Her words remind me to focus on compassion versus judgment. To relax my expectations and need to control, take deep breaths, and “Let go and let God.” 

When forgiveness is really tough, thankfulness and gratitude are more important than ever. During my toughest times, being grateful for the beauty of nature, acts of kindness, music, good books, friendly dogs, the ability to laugh at myself – those things have given me the positive energy I need to create something good out of something painful.

In Philippians 4:8, Paul, no stranger to adversity, counsels:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Why? Because gratitude shines a light for us, so we can see what path to take.

Some of the people I interviewed described forgiveness as a cleansing of the heart, and the forgiveness process as a way to scrub your heart clean and experience a liberating rebirth. David in the Bible saw it in a similar way. Listen to the words he uses when asking God for forgiveness in Psalm 51: 10 -12

Create in me a pure heart, O God,

and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Do not cast me from your presence

or take your Holy Spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation

and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

I pray that we feel the Holy Spirit within us as we strive to shine a light of love and grace for our world.

The Ungrateful Jar

A friend told me she was going to set up an ungrateful jar for Lent, the season that is observed during the forty days before Easter. “What?” I thought. “Why do that? Do we really need a jar to help us whine and complain more?” I googled ‘ungrateful jar,’ but my words were corrected by the computer and the only thing I could get to come up was ‘grateful jar’ as well as quotes about being ungrateful like, “People are so ungrateful. No one ever thanks me for having the patience not to kill them.” 

So why did my friend think an ungrateful jar was a good idea? The story spurring her plan went something like this:

A young girl we’ll call Sally was excited because her family received a package in the mail.  She was thrilled about opening the gift until her mother told her it was from their church. “Oh, darn,” Sally responded. “I suppose they’re going to tell me to count my blessings and be grateful. They do that all the time and I’m tired of it.”  Her mother responded, “Well, do you want to be ungrateful?” “Yes,” Sally said. “Okay,” replied Mother. “Let’s set up an ungrateful jar.”

Was Sally’s mom being a bad parent? How could depositing words with things we don’t like into a jar be a good thing?

When we have a physical wound, the first thing we do is clean it to get out the dirt and germs. We want to be sure there is nothing in the wound that could be infectious and toxic to our systems. After that is done, we put on the antiseptic and whatever else is necessary to heal the wound.

Mental wounds work in a similar fashion.

“Don’t put on a happy face because you think it’s expected. Grief denied is grief unhealed,” Barbara Bartocci noted in Nobody’s Child Anymore.

Sally felt pressured to put on a happy, grateful face because others expected it. However, that wasn’t working. Her unhappy face needed to be seen and comforted before her happy face could make an appearance. Sally wanted to be genuine and was tired of pretending. She may have needed to talk about her annoying little brother, problems with friends, difficult schoolwork, secret fears she was holding inside.

The Lakota combine sage and sweetgrass in their ceremonies. An Elder explained to me, “In Lakota tradition, burning or smudging with sage symbolizes healing and taking the negative off, while sweetgrass represents blessings and putting on something positive.”

We need to clean our mental wounds before we apply our healing medicine. We name those things we are not grateful for so they can work their way out of our bodies. We count our blessings so they can find their way into our hearts.

There are numerous ways to approach Lent. One way is to reflect upon mistakes and hardships and seek deeper intimacy with God. Historically, people have wept and lamented, seeking freedom from long standing issues and hope for a new beginning. My friend planned to take the notes she’d placed in her ungrateful jar during Lent and, on Easter, a time of renewal and rebirth, have a ceremony to burn them.

My friend and I don’t dwell on our troubles, but we’ve learned it doesn’t do any good to pretend we have no troubles. We’ve learned to sit down to coffee with our hurts and work on understanding them. We advise, “Go ahead and cry. Crying releases pain.” We reassure, “It’s okay to feel resentful instead of grateful, and I’m here to support you while you work on transforming your pain.” We enlist the help of gratitude because we know counting our blessings helps us keep positive and hopeful. Gratitude provides light in the darkness.

There’s a wisdom tale generally contributed to the Cherokee called the “Tale of Two Wolves.” I found several versions of the story and what follows is my adaptation of those versions.

The Cherokee Tale of Two Wolves

A Cherokee brother and sister had been fighting and were struggling with their feelings. They went to their grandparents to ask how to handle their competing emotions. Grandfather advised, “We all have a battle going on inside of us between two wolves. One wolf is mean, angry, and greedy. The other is kind, peaceful, and generous.”

“Which wolf wins?”  Grandson asked.

 “The one you feed.” Grandfather replied.

Grandmother was listening and added, “If you feed both wolves well, they both win.”

“But why would we want to feed the evil wolf?” Granddaughter inquired.

“Our bad wolf will not go away. If we ignore it or pretend it isn’t there, it will just become hungrier, more uncontrollable, and will be sneaky in looking for attention and ways to get fed. Both our good and bad wolves need to be attended to and guided. When we take care of both wolves, they can work together instead of fighting, and we can lessen the burden of internal struggle and find peace.”

We may repress our feelings because we think we shouldn’t feel the way we’re feeling or because we don’t know how to handle our disturbing thoughts and reactions. But if we can safely express genuine emotions, we may be able to better understand them and keep them from hurting both ourselves and others. One woman I interviewed for my forgiveness research described how she felt after confronting her true feelings. “I could finally breathe with a full heart and full lungs. I could free myself from the horrible pain that had been locked inside me.”

Until we know what’s in our ungrateful jar and have been able to let it go, we won’t know true joy. Sally was wise and bold because it’s not easy to throw off society’s expectations and admit everything’s not always fine, admit we don’t have everything under control.

The ungrateful jar is not really about being ungrateful. It’s about being honest and strong enough to confront what pains us, hopefully with compassionate connections supporting us. That’s something we can definitely be grateful for!  

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash