At this time of year, I and my family want to wish all of you reading this – my clients (past, present, and future), my students, and my colleagues – much “Comfort and joy” and true peace. This is a time of year when we all realize the need to address one of life’s main tasks – the task of spirituality and meaning.
Alfred Adler described three main areas in which we are called upon to rise up and meet life’s challenges: Occupation, love and relationships, and friendship and affiliation. But one of my teachers, Harold Mosak, along with Adler’s colleague Rudolf Dreikurs, spoke of two more areas of life in which we are challenged: The task of the self (or identity), and the task of spirituality and meaning. Many humanistic psychologists have considered the need for meaning in our lives, including Viktor Frankl, Carl Jung, R.D. Laing, and Irvin Yalom. We need to consider how we fit in among other people, certainly, as Adler stressed. But we also need to consider our place in life, and what life should be for us. We also need to consider our own mortality and what lies outside of our brief time on Earth.
A Season for Contemplation
Our religious traditions all tend to focus on this time of year, when the earth sheds much of its life and growth and enters a period of dormancy, when the Sun’s light grows short and the air grows cold, and when life awaits its renewal in the coming spring, to consider how we might reconsider our place in the world and in life. European traditions of the solstice and the yuletide, harking back to the Druids and other cultures of the boreal forests, call for acceptance of a difficult season and gathering together to survive the winter. People who share the Jewish faith tradition use this time of year to reflect on and celebrate hope, miracles, and experiencing (and being) a light in the world. This message is echoed in Christian traditions (like our Advent wreaths), in which we add light because Jesus is seen as the light of the world. The Hanukkah candles (like the Advent wreath candles) are meant to be nothing more than a source of light to be appreciated and considered – they are not intended to be used for reading or any other tasks. This echoes some of my memories of Christmas when I was growing up, when I used to like to simply look at the lights on the Christmas tree (especially our very mid-century version, bubble lights).
The combination of lights and music has resonated for me (like many others) as well, with the sounds of carols, or simply the popular music of the season (yes, even Elvis), accompanying the vision of lights inside the house and outside in the neighborhood. My parents had a Ray Conniff album that we played each year during the mid-1960’s when I was a school-age kid. Even now, hearing that album gives me a sense of peace and joy. When my kids were young, we acquired other holiday music, like the Canadian Brass and Arthur Fiedler’s Christmas albums. We felt the importance of having special music for the season.
(Of course, my kids didn’t have as much use for some of my seasonal music choices from the 1980’s and early 1990’s – especially the Windham Hill “Winter’s Solstice”album and (shudder) Mannheim Steamroller. They still won’t let me forget about that!)
But all of us realize instinctively that this time of year demands traditions, and can (and should) put us into a state of mind that transcends the worries of the moment and reconnects us with times past and people we’ve lost over the years. It’s also a time to celebrate the wonder of children as they experience the special quality of this time.
Listening to the Ray Conniff album made me think that (in some ways paradoxically) it seemed so much easier and more natural in the mid 1960’s to freely wish for peace on Earth and good will toward all. Maybe it was because we still had the memory of the Cuban missile crisis and the ever-present threat of nuclear war, and the shattering memory of President Kennedy’s awful assassination, in our minds. Maybe it was because we saw the hope of the civil rights movement of the 60’s. Maybe it was because we grew up with parents and grandparents who still recalled the horrors of two world wars. But we already knew that the holidays weren’t just about getting “stuff.” We were regularly warned not to give in to materialism. That’s a message that Pope Francis just repeated today, and one that probably bears repeating, with the divides of the “Me generation” of the 1980’s and the “Greed generation” of the 2000’s separating many of us from our childhoods.
Many other people – everyone from the author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” to the author of “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” – have taken up this subject, so I can’t improve on their thoughts. I would only urge you to consider what the message of the season may be for you, whatever tradition you follow – be it Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Native American, or secular humanist.
This is a time to gather together, reconnect with people who are important to us, think about our place in life and in the universe, take time (whether it is a week or just a few hours) to contemplate what we would like to do better in the coming year, and most of all, feel hope for (and work to bring about) peace on Earth, and good will toward each other. We certainly need those things more than ever in these times.
We need to go to a still place, the same still place that is evoked by the hymn “Silent Night,” and dwell in that place for however long we are able. By that, we might best prepare ourselves for what is shaping up to be one of the most divisive and anxious years any of us have seen.
One of the prayers used in the Catholic Mass until recently (one that was recited in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer) asked God to “protect us from all anxiety.” That is a big part of what we are saying when we speak of comfort and joy. And we can help give that gift to each other by putting aside competition and conflict, by stopping our name-calling and contempt, and by sharing our humanness. Let’s join together and affirm that we need each other… and that we are all we have. No gifts, technological advances, or financial successes can substitute for the bond we need to have with each other, and the connection we need to have with our spiritual life. Peace. Good will. Comfort. Joy.