A world darker and meaner

Yeah, sure, the holidays.

It’s a time when people still put on their game faces to get through the darkest part of the year, a time when many cultures developed some kind of winter festival to keep people from going off their rockers. The magical jewels of the season—the gift-giving, the embracing of kinder ways, the momentary flashes of compassion—help carry us through the bitter cold and depressing lack of light without killing each other, or ourselves.

And the message is the same, whether we’re celebrating the birth of a savior or olive-oil lamps that stayed lit for eight days, or in my religious tradition, what the Buddha called the miracle of precious human birth: Even in our darkest of hours, we hold out for hope.

But not all of us can catch the holiday spirit this year.

For various reasons, mostly stemming from problems of my own making, this isn’t turning out to be a mildly blue Christmas. No, it’s a full-on, lump of coal, daddy got drunk, set fire to the tree, took a tire iron to the presents and then puked on the turkey Christmas holiday. I’ll spare you the horrid details, except to say that, in slogging through it, I might misinterpret its tea leaves and conclude that this universe does not want me.

In Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday weeper, It’s a Wonderful Life, the character George Bailey, played by James Stewart, faced with imminent ruin, decided the world would be a better place if he’d never been born. Drunk, despondent, he staggered to a bridge, ready to jump into the icy river below. When another man on the bridge jumped first, Bailey’s charitable instincts kicked in, and he leaped in to rescue him. The other man turned out to be Bailey’s guardian angel, Clarence, there to save him from self-destruction.

Cheesy melodrama? Perhaps. But live long enough and many of us get to experience what some people call hitting bottom, that hard landing where we’re left to our own devices, safety nets shredded. And maybe there’s a loving personal god who can cushion the blow, or a benevolent universe, or a part of our brain we can’t normally tap that holds some answers. Who knows? Without any such grace, oblivion appears all but certain.

In that moment, if we’re not overcome with complete despair, we may get a dim awareness that we can choose hope over self-destruction. The alternative is, as the saying goes, a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

I know I’m not alone in my holiday experience this year. Millions of people—in this country and around the globe—are suffering as a result of external events, often compounded by our inadequate responses, and about to be crushed by a world turned suddenly darker and meaner.

Still, there’s always hope, and we are surrounded by beauty. A simple venture outside to contemplate the wonder of nature can help reconstitute the grimmest of souls. And sometimes, the remedy is as simple as breathing.

Even better is the time-honored method of forgetting our misery by helping someone else. Focusing our attention outside of ourselves can work wonders, by momentarily breaking our internal feedback loop of poor, poor, pitiful me.

May your holiday be filled with wonder, and may the coming year bring you happiness and peace.