Six years ago, my grandmother died a week and a half before Christmas. While she was ninety-one and physically incapacitated by ill health, her death was a huge visceral shock to my system. She’d helped raise me from the time I was four, and while our relationship had not been without its pain and complications, she’d been the woman who’d sat with me at the kitchen table for thousands of hours, playing games, eating meals, being my life’s most constant companion. She was very much my parent, and after losing her, I immediately released all my usual approaches to the holidays, fully expecting that the inevitable result would be a time of bleakness and unrelenting grief.
That year, my father and my then-partner and I had a very quiet Christmas. There were no gifts, no parties, and no elaborate meals cooked. What I remember most from that time was the simple breakfast we made and ate together on Christmas morning, followed by an hour or two of playing a board game my family had enjoyed all of our lives. There was laughter, even if it was bittersweet, remembering that my grandma would never play this game with us again. And then we went to the beach, and walked outside on that crisp, chilly, blue-skied California Christmas afternoon. In many ways, even though I was in deep mourning, it was the sweetest, most peaceful, most nourishing Christmas of my life. Because we let go of anything we thought we should do, and instead did what actually felt good to all of us in the moment. Because we savored being together, just as we were. And because our grief allowed us to easefully say no to the cultural push to shop and wrap and gogogo that had always felt stressful to me. The joy that resulted from this simpler approach was a revelation—my grandma’s last beautiful gift to my life—and that experience has informed my choices around the holidays ever since.
Too often in life, and especially during the holidays, it can feel like we’re swept up into a frenzied wave of obligations. Our to-do list becomes our master. Our exacting self-expectations distract us from what’s actually alive inside us moment to moment. And the invitations, offers, and requests of others for our time and energy can become difficult to navigate with grace, care, and ease. For many, there is also sadness that this time of year, which is supposed to be celebratory, feels more like a heavy burden on top of an already overwhelming life load. So how can you transform this holiday season and every season of your life into a joyful, choiceful celebration of sweet self-connection that billows out into mutually nourishing connection with others?
The first step is to recognize that obligations are actually an illusion. You never have to do anything. Whether or not you’re consciously aware of it, every single thing you do is a choice—a strategy to meet one or more of your beautiful needs. For instance, if you hate sending holiday cards but find yourself doing so every year like clockwork because that’s what you were raised to do, you may be making that choice as an attempt to meet your needs for harmony, acceptance, and continuity of connection. But if you consciously attune to those needs underlying your actions, you can choose different actions you actually enjoy that also meet those needs, rather than repeating the same holiday chores out of joyless habit. Maybe instead you call loved ones, or send a simpler holiday email to everyone, or host several small holiday dinner parties. Or maybe you decide to work on continuity of connection throughout the year, a little at a time, rather than all at once. The specifics don’t matter so much—only that whatever you choose is genuinely aligned with your needs and also feels pleasurable or meaningful to you.
The cost of pretending we have no choice is high. When we’re unaware of the needs driving our decisions, we can be disconnected from the choices we’re making and why, and that disconnection with our own aliveness leads to stress, misaligned choices, and even chronic anxiety, depression, and anger. “Should” is one of the most violent words in existence, and it’s a direct pathway to disharmony, resentment, and despair. The truth is that every single moment, we have a choice. We get to choose which of our own needs we’re going to tend to, moment to moment, breath to breath.
Coming into intimate connection with your own needs and sense of choice around those needs is like a meditative practice, with lots of stops and starts and no real end point, but the results are absolutely worth the effort. To support yourself in navigating this holiday season and coming into full conscious choice, you may enjoy trying something like this:
*Identify your three greatest needs around this holiday season.
*Put the three words someplace you can see them.
*Before you make decisions about how to spend your time, ask yourself which choice would most contribute to those three needs.
*Notice how it feels to makes choices that touch or don’t touch those needs. Simply observe without judgment, as a way to explore and deepen your own relationship to choice.
My three most precious needs this holiday season are delight, warm and loving connection, and spacious ease. I won’t be buying gifts, but I will be enjoying lively homecooked meals with people I love and deeply enjoy. There will be holiday lights and festive music, long walks in nature, phone calls to distant loved ones, evenings spent by the fire with a good book. Not because those activities are “better” than a day spent enjoying the lively hustlebustle of a holiday shopping mall, or the pleasure of carefully choosing gifts to express care, or any of the other holiday activities millions of people will do and hopefully enjoy this holiday season. Simply because the holiday activities I’m choosing feel most aligned with the needs alive inside me at this precious moment in my life. I wish you the same, dear readers. This holiday season and every season, I wish you choicefulness and joy, and I’m here to support you on that path.
With love and empathy,