Despairing over Christmas
“… there is not one single human being who does not despair a little”
Whether one celebrates Christmas to remember the birth of Christ, or the winter Solstice as a time to reflect over the passing year and plan for the next one, or in the rather more generic “Holidays” simply to ignite nostalgic family sentiment, December is a time to practice ritualistic tradition. In fact, it is the only time of the year where almost everyone, religious and secular, can find something to celebrate. It is a time so mythic that the rather ordinary things we celebrate — birthday! the setting sun! roasting of birds! drinking hot alcohol! burning candles! — become mysterious and magical. (Never mind that our communal effort to find some joy in the middle of the darkest month has been commercially exploited to become a season of stress and spending: I will save that for another day.)
Of course, it is also rife with a complex cocktail of personal depression, family feuding, and economic angst. I have experienced all three this year. First, when the holidays greeted me with the news that a high school friend with whom I have not spoken in years committed suicide; then, when the return to my hometown and family automatically triggered a series of political skirmishes; and finally, upon hearing a sermon that revolved entirely around appropriate and inappropriate economic exchange tactics in gift-giving.
This is an essay about the Christian understanding of Christmas, and how I have come to see its relationship to what Kierkegaard calls despair:
“Despair is a sickness of the spirit, of the self, and accordingly can take three forms: in despair not to be conscious of having a self; in despair not to will to be oneself; in despair to will to be oneself.”
It would not seem that the term “Self” needs much explanation, but perhaps surprisingly, it is pretty easy to move through the world without realizing you have one. Many philosophers, psychologists, and scientists have tried to break Self down for us, into a duality of forces that push back against each other, testing the limits of each other or simply waiting for one to overpower the other: the Ego and the Id, the Conscious and the Subconscious, the Intellect and the Emotion. Kierkegaard calls this “a self relating to itself,” and uses dualities like temporal and eternal, possibility and necessity, infinite and finite. But there is yet another element that does not leave these dualities in conflict, but also does not unify them: the dynamic, moment-by-moment relation between these two selves: spirit.
From my point of view on the world, this interplay of dynamics, the spirit, is the fundamental element of Self. To not be conscious of spirit, or to deny the nature of spirit (spiritual) is to live without being awake. Or at the very least, to willfully close one’s eyes. But I also believe that, because the self is relating to itself (and not myself), the terms of the relationship, or the dynamic between that relationship of Self, is not up to me to define. I may define it as spirit, but anyone who is non-religious humanist can define it in whatever way she chooses. For my purposes, I will use spirit, accepting this is a subjective term.
Unconscious of the Self
“The physician of souls will agree with me that, on the whole, most [people] live without ever becoming conscious of being destined as spirit — hence all the so-called security and contentment with life, etc, which is simply despair.”
My childhood was layered with school pageants and class costumes, research papers and book reports, group activities and participation awards. While I visited my parents last week, I undertook a major mission to purge my childhood room of the paper trail of all these years: piles of math homework and first-grade handwriting practice and multiple choice geography tests and notes passed in class and assignment handouts and workbooks and spiral-bound schedules and composition notebooks of reflections on the Psalms. These early hoarder tendencies were only limited by the size of my (rather large) closet. And while I have found some very encouraging signs that the eight-year-old on the page was no different than the thirty-three-year-old looking at it (e.g., Ad for a dog-walking service: “I don’t need to get paid very much because I am not obsessed with money”), what was more of note in my childhood papers was how adept I was — and how trained I was — at copying and reciting teacher, parent, and even middle grade fiction, propaganda. At age 12, I answered an essay question on a test with a spirited, spoon-fed tirade against humanism (“The Sumerians put their gods in place of God. Their gods were very much lower than God, so they were putting themselves much higher than they should have been.”)
The lack of information about the actual beliefs of humanists, much less the ability to provide — or even regurgitate— a coherent essay answer, is symptomatic of a 12-year-old’s way of sliding through life, absorbing what comes and repeating what adults tell you. It may be a natural part of a child’s development, but it also paves the path towards being unconscious of it’s own Self.
As an adult one might imagine one is doing it differently. But for some, the “duality” is still merely between instinct and authority. That provides a much more comfortable, and socially acceptable, framework. Real-life NYC Mad Man Raymond Loewy coined an advertising term to express the consumer’s tension between desire for novelty and fear of the unknown: MAYA stands for “Most Advanced Yet Acceptable,” and he used this theory to sell Americans the same car in a new color, or a brand new invention in the most comforting shape or style.
Blind acceptance is a symptom of the unconsciousness of the Self, and that kind of despair thickens the very artery walls of Christmas. Many people happily celebrate Christmas, unconscious that they do so with indifference to its origins or message. As if the tradition, which is a remembrance, has lost all relation or significance to what it is remembering. (Christmas is not unique in this regard, but I am limiting the scope of this piece to it.) And I am not talking about “secular” people celebrating a “Christian” holiday. I’m talking about the very hodgepodge of Christian, pagan, and tribal traditions that make up the celebratory aspects: fir trees and hay in a manger and snow in the wintertime. Grasping for the familiar, either as an adult feeling of nostalgia or in a child’s wide-eyed acceptance, is a despair of unconsciousness. A failure to recognize and relate one’s Self to this grand and aggressive outside force, because one is not even aware that this “force” is outside oneself.
Not to Will to Be One’s Self
Most celebrations of Christmas, religious or otherwise, focus on the primacy of family. Spending time with family, feeling a place of belonging in one’s own tribe, is meant to give one a wholesome feeling of peace. The gift of Jesus, and the holy mystery of his earthly life, is meant to stir one’s gratitude and honor. It’s humble, this feeling of peace and joy and well-being, isn’t it? Capturing that feeling, bottling it, and dabbing it generously behind the ears, is then branded as capturing the “true meaning of Christmas.”
But what do the circumstances, symbolically and mythically, of Jesus’ birth, or of a family’s joyful togetherness, really tell one about one’s own feelings and one’s own self? Yesterday, I spent two hours on the phone with one of my best friends, who is leaving her family out of Christmas this year. The pressure of belonging is so great — in this season above all others — that it makes her unbelonging more painful. Slotting nicely into her family’s Christmas negates some of her own values, and she is faced with a choice either to own her feelings and values and disappoint the family, or to silence herself in deference to the family’s idea of the holiday. It’s a feeling I can relate to as I silently lose myself in a Christmas world of painful contradiction. I didn’t spend enough on my family’s gifts. If I give something too practical, it won’t seem special. What happens if I don’t give something to everyone? And honestly, while I feel that none of it matters, I know that the culture surrounding my family will completely reject that and my refusal to participate in gifts will be misunderstood. Am I willing to risk being misunderstood, or (even more shocking), disliked?
It’s a feeling I’m sure my high school friend could relate to, and certainly it’s a feeling that drives the uptick in suicides during the holidays. While alienation from one’s family is not a seasonal characteristic, the despair of Christmas understood in this way is the gruesome pressure to hide one’s self, to will to accept the holiday cheer, and to quietly masquerade through the season as a version of oneself that feels the things one is “supposed to” feel, and pays the debt of deference to the holiday itself.
Does Baby Jesus need your Christmas gifts, or your holiday cheer, or your celebratory mood, or your full participation in family tradition, or your feelings of peace and harmony and goodwill toward men? Of course not; in fact, Baby Jesus doesn’t need anything from you, most especially not your feelings. If you’re not feeling it, should you feel guilty? Or should you simply feel your feelings? Accept them. Sit with them. Living the lie of dis-authenticity, simply to appease one’s family, or one’s religious devotion, is, too, simply despair.
Willing to Be One’s Self
“On the other hand, those who say they are in despair are usually either those who have so deep a nature that they are bound to eventually become conscious as spirit, or those whom bitter experiences and dreadful decisions have assisted in becoming conscious as spirit: it is either one or the other; the person who is really devoid of despair is rare indeed.”
It may seem that some relief could be experienced by ultimately willing to be one’s Self. Accepting that that traditions of Christmas have lost their meaning, or their value, and simply doing what one feels. Of course feeling is not the same as willing. To feel one’s Self, amidst an outside world where Christmas is dominated by the atmosphere of hurry, of perfection, of fulfilling the expectations of others, is impossible. It is impossible to deny the inevitability of the season. This, too, is despair, even if one agrees not to relate to it anymore.
But it doesn’t have to be.
There is, indeed good news. That being, if you are in despair, you are already on your way to finding the tension between the relation in yourself, the dynamic between contradictions: spirit. Looking inward and searching for that dynamic relies very little on the outside world, but I want to know: can it actually relate to the very outward (let’s say extroverted) dynamic of Christmas?
Let me step back from Kierkegaard for a moment, and simply come back to the despair we are all familiar with, that gnawing feeling, the more intense cousin of anxiety, that enduring hopelessness, and the inescapability of it. Just sit with that.
Just for a moment, let that despair be.
By the very nature of what it’s become, Christmas can stir all of those feelings, and not just for us today. The birth of Jesus could have meant exact the same things for Mary and Joseph. It could mean the same thing for anyone stuck in the darkest and coldest, insufferable days of winter, devoid of the light it takes to hope for spring. It is only by reaching out into the future, accepting the impossible, or at least unknowable, and stretching one’s hand out into the darkness that despair is banished. That is, by faith.
The truth of the “holiday season” is, humans need tradition and ritual. But when we use it as a shortcut to belief, emotion, or action, it falls flat on its face into despair. There is no shortcut to becoming conscious of the Self, and there is no shortcut to creating the world we want to see. (For me, that would be a world in which not everything — including sentiment, religion, family, tradition — is commodified.) It’s not a shortcut to developing a better relationship with my family, or a shortcut to dropping my facade around them. Giving up on the world that I want to see is also not a shortcut, or a solution.
Do we need a little bit of despair in Christmas? Yes, maybe. Perhaps everyone does. But a despair that becomes a movement, a tension, a relation, to a faith that can move us toward the future, the impossible, the unreal.