I have a reaction when someone I know does not have family members with whom to spend Thanksgiving or Christmas. As a Psychologist, I know that I am projecting the feelings of loneliness and existential anxiety that I experienced on my first Christmas in New York, freezing with my loved ones clear across the country.
As a human, I sometimes lose awareness of my projections and begin to assume that everyone without family companionship on a holiday is suffering in some way. Whether a projection or a reality, I have learned that REMAINING CURIOUS is the most important reaction to have toward those in our community who do not have “family” to celebrate with. The spirit of curiosity helps shift my assumption that they are dying inside while allowing me to remain cognizant and compassionate around any feelings or memories that the holidays may bring.
Those of us who have worked in residential treatment programs, shelters, hospitals, institutions, detention centers, jails, or a similar place know the experience of being paid to spend the holiday with people who have no one else. If I am totally honest, I have never agreed to spend Thanksgiving or Christmas with my clients. Therefore, my guilty heart would ache every time I noticed the melancholy reaction of an individual who just learned that their roommates have family on the way to pick them up, or when a staff member mentioned how excited they were to have days off and be home with their family. Even though many in treatment probably felt safer and more at peace staying at the program, I still felt extremely guilty for never being willing to spend the holiday with them.
I later realized that if I could get over my guilty feelings, and simply try to better understand what the holiday meant to these folks without family, they were extremely relieved by the experience of someone remaining curious and allowing them to have a place to speak about their feelings and experiences. It seems simple; however, the holidays can be such an emotionally overwhelming time that I tend to avoid the conversations that would put my worries into perspective. Whether someone has had traumatic experiences, joyful memories, old traditions, or nothing at all during a holiday, I have learned that it is important to at least remain sensitive to the possibility that holiday means something different to them than it does to me.
Recently, it was my best friend who reminded me of the importance of curiosity around the holiday. I realized that inviting her to come to where I am every holiday to help her avoid feeling the loneliness of being a single parent without a reliably loving extended family was a nice gesture; however, my invitations often lack the sensitivity and compassion that could have resulted from remaining curious and giving her a moment to contemplate how the holiday season is truly impacting her. I commit to remaining curious about the feelings, reactions, and memories of my friends, clients, and community during this holiday season.