The gift everyone is hoping for this Holiday Season!

David Olsen, Ph.D, LCSW

It’s been a long year! I’m reminded of one of the pieces in Handel’s Messiah: “the people walk in darkness”. It seems appropriate since it’s both literally dark with shortened days and symbolically dark in terms of a pandemic that keeps mutating, as well as illness, death, school shootings, tornadoes, partisan politics…

In this last year I’ve had a close friend almost killed cycling, a two year old relative rushed in for major life threatening surgery, listened to stories of the sudden death of friend’s family members, been forced to reorganize our counseling center, watched a dramatic surge in mental health issues related to the pandemic, and just read the surgeon general’s report about the new mental health crisis among children and adolescents. At times it does feel very dark, depressing and overwhelming!

As I drove to work this morning I was listening at top volume to Handel’s Messiah (as opposed to Foo Fighters), and was brought to tears listening to the lyrics of “Comfort ye my people”. As I listened to that breathtaking piece, I thought - isn’t that what we all crave this holiday season? In the midst of the darkness, we long for comfort and hope.

So, while trying to find the perfect gift, which will inevitably be the wrong size or color, let’s try offering the profound comfort the people around you long for. To paraphrase Ghandi “be the comfort”. What would that look like?  Consider several suggestions:

  1. Comfort is always relational. Thomas Merton, the late Trappist Monk and writer, put it like this: “In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything”. I couldn’t state it better. We know that the limbic system, the core of our emotional life, is soothed interpersonally. Self help books and helpful self talk rarely bring comfort. In contrast, think of a time when you were agitated or depressed and were able to talk it out with a good friend. While that friend most likely did not offer solutions to your problem, you felt comforted. There are no easy answers to the complicated problems of life, but relationships ease the pain.
  2. Comfort is always empathic. If you think more about the example of sharing with a good friend, more than likely what provided soothing and comfort was their ability to be empathic. They were able to resonate with your experience, and understand you from the inside out and connect on a deep level. The result was comfort and soothing. Sadly, that type of empathic comfort is in short supply!
  3. Comfort is always kind. Our world is increasingly harsh and angry. It is not difficult to find examples of anger, frustration, or agitation when driving, or listening to political debates, or even to find it within our families. Kindness is a wonderful antidote and always surprises me when I experience it. The writer Henry James was visited by his nephew Billy, who when asked later in life what he learned from his uncle, he quoted these words: “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind.  The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind”.
  4. Comfort is transcendent. Comfort points beyond itself to something we all hope for. We long to participate in something greater than ourselves: something transcendent. Handel’s breathtaking oratorio consistently points to that transcendent hope of transformation and peace. In the words of the lyrics “make straight what was crooked, make the rough places plain… For the Glory of the Lord o’er the earth is shed abroad”. In the midst of the exhausting holiday season, under the busyness, family gatherings and decorating, lurks the profound hope for something better. We long, especially at this time of the year, for a world full of comfort and peace: for transformation. In the words of the biblical text, we long for the time when “the lion will lie down with the lamb”.

As you navigate this complicated holiday season, listen to the longings for hope, for comfort, and transformation. Be part of the transformation. Give the gift that everyone longs for: give the gift of comfort. Sometimes it’s the small gift of a smile, asking how someone’s day is going, or checking on old friends. Frederick Buechner describes going through a dark time in his life, and how a friend drove 800 miles to be with him knowing he was struggling. He put it this way: “I have never forgotten that he came all that distance just for that.” He describes it as a spiritual encounter although they never talked about religion and ends by saying, “I believe that for a little time… we were healed”.