It's that time of year again; time to free ourselves from the shackles of the ego and extend beyond ourselves. Following so soon a holiday that ideally should remind us to be thankful and count our blessings, we now are approaching another special time that gives us reason to turn our attention to others. With everything that has been going on in our country and the world, including economic crises and social and political discord, it may be difficult for some to keep the spirit of Thanksgiving in their hearts and minds, let alone consider the plight of those around them. Yet if there ever was a time to reach out and touch someone with the kind of joy, love, and enthusiasm for other human beings like that exhibited by the "reborn" Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens' 1843 novel, "A Christmas Carol," this is it.
Lest we risk being haunted in the middle of the night by the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, we'd better learn from Scrooge's legacy of personal transformation and be willing to follow suit. Lately, however, I seem to be encountering people who are intent on retreating from life -- at best, sitting on the sidelines -- and reluctant to engage with others in meaningful ways, even during what should be a festive holiday season. Why, just the other day, while being interviewed on a popular radio show, my host, who appeared to be dejected and not very enthusiastic or passionate about having to go on the air, asked me point-blank if I had observed an increase in existential angst, boredom, disengagement or disillusionment among people recently. Apparently this particular radio show host had seen such an increase and wanted me not only to confirm his hypothesis but also to justify his personal plight!
I hope that such a pessimistic attitude and lack of enthusiasm for the miracle of life does not extend too far and that we end 2010 and begin the New Year with optimism for the future. While the holiday season may not be a time of joy and happiness for everyone, I do not believe that this is the case for most people, especially for those who are able to shift their focus of attention from themselves to those in need and/or who are less fortunate. Greeting the holidays with enthusiasm by exercising the freedom to choose one's attitude -- a core principle behind the search for meaning -- allows the human spirit to work its wonders, especially during hard times. Rather than suffering under the crushing weight of Jacob-Marley-like chains, "enthusiasm," which to the ancient Greeks was considered a form of divine possession, provides us with an antidote to despair and related symptoms along with the keys to true freedom, happiness and well-being.
This holiday season is also a good time to talk about another topic that usually gets ignored when we feel like a victim -- that is, when life just happens to us. I'm talking about forgiveness. Indeed, getting to forgiveness is perhaps the most difficult and challenging thing that we can do to go beyond ourselves when we are so fixated on our problems, our needs and our demands. Let's face it, when things are spinning out of control -- and especially out of our control -- it's at least comforting and cathartic, even if it doesn't really resolve anything, to be able to point the blame on others for our situation.
Of course, getting to forgiveness under such circumstances is much easier said than done. But it can be done! And, importantly, our capacity to forgive actually provides us with yet another pathway to true freedom and self-empowerment that, at the same time, is a platform for healing what ails us and for confronting what challenges us.
Forgiveness means "letting go" of our suffering. In effect, it has much more to do with our own well-being than that of the person or persons we forgive. When we hold on to our suffering -- our resentment, hurt, anger -- we are inside ourselves with self-pity. It becomes a veil through which we see ourselves and others; it becomes something we have to feed, keep alive and justify. If we don't, we think we allow the other person or people to be "right" in their unjust treatment of us.
But forgiveness can be one of the most powerful things we do. Like any muscle, however, it has to be exercised to work well. Forgiveness can be very complicated. Sometimes we think that it equates forgetting, diminishing or condoning the misdeed, but it really doesn't. It has much more to do with freeing ourselves from its hold. Our ability to live our lives with love, understanding, and generosity is impeded when we don't forgive. It doesn't mean that we have to love and be generous to the woman who was disloyal to us at work or the man who belittled our ideas at a staff meeting. Neither does it mean that we have to love and be generous to those government officials who dropped the ball by not managing the public's business with integrity, transparency and accountability, or to those corporate executives on and off Wall Street who dangerously let the will to make money trump the will to find meaning, at the public's expense. No, this is not it. But what it does mean is that we forgive them and liberate ourselves from further captivity. Love and generosity, as well as understanding, will return in their own time and on their own terms. (The same holds true for things that happen to us in our personal lives and relationships.)
Importantly, when we authentically and enthusiastically go beyond ourselves -- whether to achieve forgiveness, unselfishness, thoughtfulness, generosity and understanding toward others -- we enter into the spiritual realm of meaning. By giving beyond ourselves, we make our own lives richer. This is a truth long understood at the heart of all meaningful spiritual traditions. It's a mystery that can only be experienced. And when we do experience it, we are in the heart of meaning.
You can find out more about Dr. Alex Pattakos, author of the internationally bestselling book "Prisoners of Our Thoughts," in his HuffPost bio. You can learn about his new initiative, The OPA Way!® of "living a happy, healthy, meaningful life," as well as join the new OPA! Village (it's free!) at www.theopaway.com.