Is It Really A Wonderful Life?

In search of the real holiday spirit

Posted Dec 14, 2011

It's the holiday season again.   Most of us don't know if we love it or hate it.  Many people tell me they just try to get through it.  We shop, we party, we trim the tree.  We put up the decorations, mail the packages, write the annual letter, and send the cards.  We eat, drink, and spend too much.  And all the while, we're not quite sure why we are doing it.

As I reflect on myself and those in my circle, it seems that we do many of these so-called festive things because we think we have to, not because we really want to. We go on automatic pilot. We act out of some unnamed sense of obligation, a vague feeling of guilt, an anxiety that something will go wrong if we don't keep up with the rituals, or the traditions, or the Joneses. But do we ever stop to ask ourselves, "Why are we doing this?" That excellent question leads to an even deeper question, "What would happen if we didn't?"

Believe it or not, there are all sorts of unconscious scenarios that underly the things we feel compelled to do. And these scenarios come with some very vulnerable feelings. Maybe you can relate. Let's take the common experience of being invited to a party that you have mixed feelings about attending. Maybe you are too busy or too tired to go. Maybe the party conflicts with another event. Maybe you don't like the host very much or you believe the host doesn't really like you. Maybe your ex has been invited or your boss—or even your analyst!

These scenarios stir up all kinds of worry. If I don't go to this party, will I be left out next time? Do my friends and family really love me, or do I have to earn their love by accepting every invitation to get together? If I don't go to the party, will the host or someone else take it as a rejection? If there's some truth to the idea that I don't want to go because I really don't like someone all that much, what does that mean about me? If I choose not to attend the party, does it mean that I'm wimping out and avoiding my problems, or does it mean that I'm taking care of myself? The list goes on.

I think the holiday season provokes these insecurities and many more. The holidays tantalize us with the promise of a kind of ideal connection to family and friends, often stirring up a nostalgia of something that never really existed. We secretly long for the family gathering in which we will feel perfectly accepted. We secretly hope that we will feel loved because someone knew just the right gift for us. We secretly worry that if we miss something then everything will fall apart.

In all the scurrying around to achieve some ideal, I think we often miss what we are really looking for. We often call it the holiday spirit. I think, at root, the holiday spirit is really about peace of mind. And peace of mind doesn't come with achieving some kind of perfect state; it comes with realizing the goodness of the imperfect state that we are in.

The best holiday movies and stories have become classics because they are about real people engaged in nitty gritty life. And into this nitty gritty life, hope and love and peace are born.  We discover that there is goodness in what was felt to be a not-so-wonderful life.

Perhaps this year, in spite of all the busyness, we will be able to find some time for reflection. Some time to reflect on the year, to give thanks for the gifts we have received, to share gifts from the heart, to mourn our losses and disappointments, and to find some strength to face the road ahead.

Copyright 2011 by Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D.

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About the Author

Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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