I don’t love Christmas. I adore Christmas. It is the one holiday and the one season that I genuinely, honestly eagerly anticipate all year long. I sing Christmas songs in July. It is a tradition to buy the first present in October and to keep shopping until the day before Christmas. I love absolutely *everything* about it. I love the magic. I love the innocence of watching little faces light up. I love how my whole house smells like Yankee Candle’s “Christmas Cookie” because of the two candles I leave burning in the kitchen. I love staring at the tree which we put up immediately following Thanksgiving. I love teaching SS year round, but at no time more than Christmas because of the specialness of the story. I love Santa Claus, too, and I paid $1000 to make snow appear on my farm in Farmville, which is really insane, when we stop and think about it. I love making and painting the Christmas village with the girls and gingerbread houses and just the thought of being snowed in makes me smile. Despite my absolute, totally un-feminine abhorrence towards shopping, during Christmastime, something truly astounding happens: I can actually spend more than ten minutes in a store because I love searching for that “perfect” gift. One year, I was bound and determined to get my sister a spa day and I was so excited when I purchased it for her that I just about did cartwheels (which I don’t even know how to do!) in the middle of a pubic, downtown street. This year, I am so excited about the gifts the girls are going to unwrap that I can just barely keep from busting out of my seams.
Yesterday was a classic Christmas day—perfect, really. We made the early morning pilgrimage to my old high school and saw a very special and dear teacher of mine, whom I adore. Then, we did some serious Christmas shopping–first to Phillips Toy Mart (it’s totally awesome in there!), where we stood and stared at Breyer horses until horses came out our ears, going, “I like that one too. Well, which one do you think is the bestest (which isn’t even a word unless you have children)?” before heading to the madhouse of Toys R Us in M’boro, where we stood and stared at RC cars and airplanes and dump trucks going, “look how awesome that one is….do you think it’d work the way it’s supposed to? I don’t know. Do you? No. Hmm. Let’s stand here and stare at it for another fifty minutes then.” After giving away most of our money, we picked up the girls and went to Opry Mills where we saw Santa, rode the merry-go-round, ate dinner and then spontaneously decided to splurge on Build-A-Bear fun before we headed over to the hotel for ice cream and a carriage ride to view the lights/nativity scene. By the time I laid down, I thought I’d been up for decades. And I was genuinely happy. Christmas makes me happy. Genuinely, heart-wrenching happy. And that’s before we even mention Christ and why this holiday is so sweet. It is a peaceful, joyful, warm season which I totally adore.
It is not that way for a lot of people. For too many, this year brings painful feelings of loneliness, incompetence, fear and depression (and there will probably be an entire different article about how that is *not* just a word but a true and serious problem). Christmas is celebrated because it remembers an event that is Biblical, holy and salvation-ensuring. For that reason, Satan appears in earnest during this season and, just as he normally does, he often shows up those most vulnerable, bringing with him terrible memories, earth shattering pain. Having personally been dealt a painful blow recently and been experiencing much difficulty with one shattering memory, I thought about this a lot the past couple of days.
The result? One word: survivor.
According to the dictionary, this is the definition of the word survivor: a person who continues to function in spite of opposition, hardship or setbacks. Notice that there is no mention of the word “flourish” or “overcomes” or any other word that would mean the person triumphed *over* opposition. Instead, it says that it’s a person who “continues to function in spite of…” Tiffini-translation: it’s a person who made one choice that was monumental: the decision to live. That’s not an action that most of us would consider brave or extraordinary. Choosing to live isn’t an action most of us even consciously think about on a day to day basis. The sun sets, you go to bed; it rises and, on most days, you get up. On stinky days, you hide, but you don’t seriously entertain the idea that you won’t see the next day’s sun. And then something catastrophic happens to you: the earth stops spinning long enough for you to feel like you’ve fallen off it, something or someone shoots a bullet into your heart and suddenly, you start asking yourself strange questions like, “what was the point of this day? How is it going to get better? Who would care?” and you starting picturing scary, scary stuff like a nice, warm day where people are gathered around you to talk about you but not to you. Life seems like the hardest job on the planet, and it seems too much like a joke you don’t understand. It feels easier to lie down and never get up than it does to drag in oxygen, much less move your feet. Trust is a foreign concept, and all you can understand is desperation and loneliness. There’s a billion people in the world; millions in your city. But not one of them could possibly understand what just happened, or what its effects were on your heart.
And then… Something else happens. It’s usually subtle, something small that the pain doesn’t allow you to see at first; like a friend calling to tell you she misses you, an e-mail from a forgotten past that makes you stop; a flower growing in concrete, a happy homeless guy who approaches you but does not ask for money; a hug that lasts just a minute longer than you thought it would and so makes you cry. And when night falls again, you close your eyes, drag in a breath that feels refreshing instead of draining and you think to yourself, “I can do this.” You pray, but instead of praying in self pity or a sense of entitlement or anger, this time, you pray for nothing but His presence. You get out of bed instead of keeping the covers pulled over your head like part of you still wants to. You make yourself leave the house or you call your mother, finally. You do something. Then, sometime later, you look back and think to yourself, “how did I do it?”
That is a survivor; yet all you did was make a decision to act, to choose life over death, optimism over despair. A survivor is someone who, in the deepest part of herself, believes in the goodness of life, who hasn’t yet had the light of hope snuffed out, even when it was just a fragile flicker. I’ve come to believe that the way I protect that light is through my faith in God because, at the end of the day, I truly believe that if I need a hand to hold, God will reach His down to me. Sometimes I believe I have to be stronger than I am. I have to meet expectations before they’re even expected of me. But when I stop to analyze that, I can see objectively how that is impossible, because I am not God, and how, at least half the times, the only expectations that are truly placed on me are the ones I place upon myself. People have said that I’m strong. I’ll be honest, I do not feel strong. Most of the time, I feel like I’m treading water, holding my head above the current, but wearing myself out in so doing.
For me, what hit me was logic. The introduction to cognitive psychology and how they believe you should “test your beliefs” struck a nerve, and I started trying to do it. My beliefs did not survive the experiments. I couldn’t prove my worst fears, or my darkest beliefs, true. And so…I put one foot in front of the other and held God’s hand until I could lift my head to see the world as it really is, instead of through the colored glasses of pain and could feel more than the breaking of my heart.
It is hard to think of ourselves as survivors because we generally have high standards for what a survivor is. For me, a survivor was someone who lived through Auschwitz or another death camp. It was someone who lived through horrific trauma and came out talking about Amazing Grace. I used to stare at such people and think, “you must be made of a different mold than me.” I just assumed they were stronger, emotionally, and so they were capable of more than me. In reality, though, maybe not. Maybe they just clung to positives in life until they discovered that life wasn’t a daily, up-hill fight anymore.
Christmastime is a beautiful time of year. An angel, a real one, not a fairy tale one, appeared to a teenage girl and told her she was pregnant with God’s baby. That baby was a boy, named Jesus, and He was born. And He did have a choice. And He chose life for us through death. Hard to believe? Yes. But that’s because pain and Satan have a way of making us demean ourselves and feel shame when what we should feel is beautiful because someone innocent thought of us and smiled, though He hung on a cross. When it’s hard to believe, just pretend it’s true. If you can pretend, then you can read a book. If you read a book, comfort will find you, and then the pretending will end when you say, “thank you” by accepting the sunrise not as a condemnation, not as some sort of punishment but, rather, as a gift to a survivor. Instead of focusing on how bright the lights are, and how excited shoppers appear; instead of focusing on what is or is not beneath the tree, or how many or how few relatives or friends call or come to see you—instead of focusing on those things, write a letter of gratitude, even if you have to just pretend to be grateful to do it. Look outside at a star and imagine that a Man looks at you with tenderness and compassion. Christmastime is not about presents. It’s not even about family, really. No, it’s about hope and, even deeper than that, it’s about love and empathy and compassion and sacrifice. When something touches my back, or when my closed eyelids act as a screen for a horror show, or when I’m so physically exhausted all I can do is cry—that’s when I need most to remind myself that Christmas is for me. Christ came not to save the saints but to lift up the weak and to hold the battered: He came so that each of us could be survivors. And in that, there is peace. There is hope. There is a new and positive day. There is Amazing Grace. There is comfort. There is solace. There is Christmas.