Thanksgiving Greetings from an Ingrate, 2016: Where’s the Mashed Potatoes?

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

Okay…this post has nothing to do with a lack of mashed potatoes.  I just love that line.  It’s become a staple of M and my faux-complaining about, well, really any meal–not just Thanksgiving.  Not that we want mashed potatoes at every meal, but anyway…

A friend recently called me out for not being an ingrate. This via a Facebook post, wherein I was responding to her efforts at working through the 24-days-of-gratitude challenge, or whatever it’s called when you note something you’re thankful for every day throughout November until Thanksgiving. I commented that I had been planning to do the same, although “planning” is perhaps too strong a word…it had occurred to me that I could engage in that challenge, and that I had done it in the past…although, maybe not in November. I might have just chosen 24 or 25 random days, having missed the point entirely…or maybe having expanded the point out in the most glorious of ways by refusing to confine my thankfulness to some specific stretch on a calendar. At any rate, not being an ingrate perhaps takes away from these annual posts, but at least somebody gets the point…that I’m not really an ingrate.

To those who don’t know me, it might be easy to imagine I am such. I enjoy complaining–embrace complaining–as an art form. It’s performance. It’s fun. It’s pure joy, garnering accolades and laughs when in the right company—and disturbed, ‘are-you-okay?’-furrowed-brow looks when in the ‘wrong’ company.

You see, when a big portion of your work is devoted to listening, absorbing, and redirecting the misery of the world, complaining is life-saving, life-affirming, the stuff of thanks.

Or not.

It’s all a matter of perspective. Much of the ‘wrong’ company involves people in my same field, but with a vastly different view of how we need to approach life in order to receive the blessings of thanks, or the thanks of blessings, or whatever life-denying positivity they think will cancel out the darkness of the season…that same darkness our ancestors feared was the impending end of time.

ingrate-thanksgiving

Blurry and off-color…just like misplaced anger!

When I set out to write this annual exercise in ingratitude/gratitude, I tried to think of a good Thanksgiving story from my past.

As I’ve noted in previous ‘ingrate’ posts, I have very few specific childhood memories of Thanksgiving. It was just some day off from school—two days actually–where things were, perhaps, much worse than school…having to put on church clothes only to have a meal that wasn’t particularly interesting.

Perhaps my emotional deficit around Thanksgiving is that it comes between my own balls-out/dress-up/mess-up-the-house-with-monster-decorations/get-candy enthusiasm of Halloween, and the hyper-sentimentality/religious significance/songs/smells/twinkling-lights/PRESENTS!! of Christmas.

How can Thanksgiving compete with that? New Year’s doesn’t fare all that well in comparison, either. Perhaps as a child, I was too close to family, too frequently in contact with them, to realize the value in being able to meet up yet again.  Getting together with family is something that’s become far too infrequent, with siblings spread out across six states, and cousins across at least four more that I know of.

In the absence of the frequent family gathering, I have grown to love, if not the sham history of the holiday, then what the idea of the holiday represents…coming together, helping each other out, recognizing what we have, and why all those elements are potentially so great.

Again this year, my immediate family and I are going out to eat for Thanksgiving–at a favorite restaurant where we’ve enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner before. Again this year, it is a function of our work schedules. That is to say, we could request time off, but, as with every year of the last decade, I work in a 24/7 operation, and M works at a school that caters to doctors (who work in a 24/7 operation). So, we pick and choose which holidays to celebrate more or less enthusiastically.

M was insisting she wanted to make a Thanksgiving meal this year. When the idea was first proposed, I went along with it. Then, at some later time, the kid and I ganged up on her, and pointed out that she had to work the day before, and the day after, Thanksgiving, as do I.  Well, actually, I’m working the day before, the day of, and the day after Thanksgiving, which means a portion of the argument rested on what a pain it would be for me to help do the shopping and cooking and all that, while still attempting to get any sleep–have I mentioned that I work nights?  Coordinating the menu, the purchase of the food, and the preparation of the food, was far more work than we were all ultimately prepared to do, all for just the three of us.

We managed to nail down Christmas plans that would allow more time before and after that holiday to indulge in such excessive amounts of preparation and work, and still get in a fair amount of relaxation, all in the company of family. I’ll hold to my feeling that thanks shouldn’t be a chore, and that holidays should be centered around a desire to celebrate, rather than an obligation to go through the motions of celebration.

I am incredibly thankful, once again, that I have the great fortune to pay to indulge in the hospitality provided by others. And once again, I intend to tip with guilt-laden generosity.

Wherever you are today, I hope you have reason to recognize your situation as one of great fortune as well.

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

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THE WAR ON CHRISTMAS AND THE FIGHT AGAINST COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS

In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Linus points out to Charlie Brown that he has taken “a Wonderful season like Christmas, and turned it into a problem.”  And while I would never compare a beloved figure like Charlie Brown to ridiculous cartoon characters like Bill O’Reilly and Sarah Palin, the people who push the idea of a “War on Christmas” are engaging in that same mindset of turning a wonderful season into a problem—and all allegedly because they love it so much.

When Charlie Brown complained about Christmas, it was because, “I know nobody likes me.  Why do we need a whole holiday season to emphasize it?”  This is what we in the therapy business might call examples of thinking errors, or cognitive distortions.  Look beyond your pantophobia.  Challenge those thoughts, Charlie, and what do you arrive at?

“I know nobody likes me.”  That’s what we might call “All or nothing thinking.”  As a little hint, almost anytime you say that everybody or nobody is doing something, that’s pretty much a distortion—a false statement.  What would a challenge be to that thought, Charlie Brown?  I bet Linus might feel a little offended at being considered a “nobody,” as I doubt he would say he doesn’t like you.  He’s a pretty good friend to you, offering support at every turn.  So, there are people who like you, and you know that.

Now how about the idea that there is “a whole holiday season to emphasize” that nobody likes you?  Well, since we’ve already successfully challenged the idea that nobody likes you, the argument is already flawed, but what else?  Might we call this magnification?  It’s definitely an exaggeration, as if an entire season was there just to make you feel bad.  Is it everybody’s desire to make you feel bad that drives the holiday season, or is there something else going on?  I think your good friend Linus hits on at least one different explanation.  Lights please.

So, now it’s your turn Bill and Sarah.  How about the phrase, “War on Christmas”?  Are there any problems with this phrase?  How about magnification?  Blowing things out of proportion, kind of like Charlie Brown did?

First of all, “War” is a pretty harsh word.  In the most real sense, it means organized, focused acts of aggression and violence.  People get killed.  Property gets destroyed.  So, certainly, in the United States you can’t mean that there is, properly speaking, a war going on with Christmas as its target.

Even in its more hyperbolic meaning, as when it’s applied to a concept, the word “war” is usually attached to actions that have a demonstrable, negative impact on the thing against which the war is being waged.  For example, the “War on poverty” was intended to have specific impacts that “damage” poverty or put an end to poverty.  One might fight poverty by trying to increase employment, reduce hunger, and ensure adequate access to housing.  There is a coordinated plan of “attack” with goals to be achieved and measured.

So, maybe instead of saying that there’s a “War on Christmas” you could say, there’s a “Push for recognition of non-Christmas holidays” or maybe a “Movement to make participation in Christmas celebrations elective.”  Sure, those phrases aren’t that catchy, but they also help steer away from connecting anger and violence with Christmas, which really seems like a great goal, don’t you think?

“But…but,” you may be saying, “the War on Christmas has a demonstrable, negative impact on Christians!”  Careful, now, we don’t want to get into emotional reasoning, believing something is true just because you had a feeling related to the thought.  Let’s look at the impact the war on Christmas has on Christians in the United States.

In order to measure the tangible impacts, we would have to have some specific examples of what this War on Christmas involves.  Let’s see—there’s the matter of some stores having employees say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and utilizing the same language in their ads.  But does that really hurt anybody who is filled with Christmas spirit and good will toward all her/his fellow human beings?  Or does it actually make sense, in the United States, a pluralistic society which was in no small part established by people looking for freedom to worship how they wanted, to expect that people will celebrate whatever holidays they want in whatever way they want?

It is hardly an insult to say “Happy Holidays,” unless you consider referring to Christmas as one of multiple holidays (which literally means “holy days”) insulting. So, what is it about “Happy Holidays” that is so offensive?  Isn’t it more offensive to establish an atmosphere in which people think that “Merry Christmas” might be a challenge—a test to see if they’ll say “Merry Christmas” back in order to avoid a fight?  What is it about Christmas that makes anyone want to start an argument, especially anyone who views Christmas as a positive thing?

So what else have we got?  Public schools deciding not to include specifically religious (Christian) songs in their “holiday” (not Christmas) music programs?  Does it really hurt you if the kids sing “Frosty the Snowman” and “Winter Wonderland” rather than “Greensleeves” and “O Come All Ye Faithful”?  Well, how about this—how many of the “War on Christmas”-endorsing crowd would be happy to find out that all the kids in the local public school had to learn a specifically Muslim song for, say, a concert in honor of Ramadan?  Or if they had to learn a Jewish song that was more religiously-based than the Dreidel Song?  Or maybe the Dreidel Song is offensive enough to anyone who actually believes that there is a war on Christmas.

So, let’s stack up the allegedly negative impacts of the “War on Christmas” against what goes on in the United States every year during the “holiday season.”  Christians, and many people who celebrate Christmas out of tradition rather than out of religious conviction, decorate their homes, and often various community gathering places.  Churches have one of their busiest times of year, including plenty of singing, praying, and programs wherein children perform religious songs and plays while dressed as shepherds, wise men, and the Holy Family.  Stores certainly decorate and make a variety of specifically Christmas-related items available.  I know I can walk into almost any major department store, and even a huge number of specialty stores and find nativity scenes of various sizes, Advent calendars, Christmas tree ornaments, Christmas cards, and on and on.  Where’s the real damage?  The destruction?  The horrible losses?

Acknowledging that other people in your community don’t share your same traditions and religion does not mean you are under attack, and definitely does not mean you are involved in a war.  To believe as much is a massive cognitive distortion, a mental filter siphoning out the good of Christmas in search of a reason to be angry rather than to be filled with joy, love, and the Christmas spirit.  People asserting their right not to be Mannheim Steamrolled by Christmas excesses are not armies or even shoe bombers, just people saying, “Hey, we’re not all like you.”

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Therapists and mental health professionals of various stripes are not automatically opposed to religion.  (And, contrary to popular belief, the holiday season is not the time of year with the most suicides, at least not the most completed suicides).  I have seen firsthand, and participated in, some of the incredible good that people of faith can accomplish.  And I think various expressions of faith and spirituality are wonderful when they are used as part of a person’s support system and coping skills.  Plenty of people derive great strength from their faith, rely on it to provide meaning in their lives, and engage it to look for the good in others.  And I’m pretty sure Jesus said something about being able to tell Christians by their love, and not by the ludicrous complaints they make in an effort to sell books.

But maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe spirituality is not intended as a source for expanding one’s view of the greatness of all creation, and one’s place in, and connection to, it, including one’s ties to one’s fellow people.  Maybe spirituality is the best tool for narrowing down one’s focus to the pettiest things one should really be angry about.  Hunger?  Economic injustice?  War?  Violence?  Why bother with addressing any of that when you can get angry about City Hall having a “holiday tree” but no manger scene, or perhaps a manger scene, but also displays for Chanukah, and Kwanzaa?

What does it do to a person when she/he uses spirituality as a source for anger at those who don’t express their beliefs in the same way she/he does?  What does it do to a person to make Christmas a source of personal anger at other people, not because she/he despises Christmas, but because she/he claims to love it?

Linus, engaging a pure sense of Christmas spirit, shows that love is transformative and life-giving.  It brings people together, and challenges their notions of separateness, selfishness, and persecution.  So, take a cue from Linus this…ahem…holiday season and engage that sense of love and joy.  You may just end up feeling less like “nobody loves me” Charlie brown, and more like “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.”