The holidays and the beginning of the new year can actually be a time to lean back, if only for a couple of moments each day, to take a breath, reflect and recognize how fragile life is and how beautiful so much of it has been and still remains for us.
Michel de Montaigne in his selected essays wrote that a certain tribe in Africa used to put a skull on the table before a major celebration would begin. The reason was not to depress people, but to help them realize how fleeting life was so they would enjoy this important experience even more.
This is not a version of "Drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die." Instead, it is a gentle reminder that we should be grateful and drink in all the moments before us because on one of these "tomorrows" we or someone we love will die. All gathering leads to losing, all meeting to separation, every birth ends in death. Realizing this deeply -- especially during the holidays -- is not a depressing thought, but can offer us a special opportunity.
It is a chance for us because at this point we are not dead yet. Also, those who live in our home, office, neighborhood, and yes, on our Facebook pages are not gone... yet. Just as in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, the season isn't gone, we are not dead. We still have a chance! Now, we must take it.
The easiest way is a brief two minute meditation I call "the fragility exercise." Before you get going each day -- be it before you get out of bed, when you are first sitting up, in the shower, or with your first cup of coffee by yourself -- picture the people you love in your life no longer being there, then picture yourself suddenly dying. Don't rush through this reflection but instead let it deepen in you until you are ready to say. "But this is not so. I still have a chance to appreciate the people, myself, and my life today (but only today)."
If this approach doesn't fully strike you deeply enough, then recall how the character in Thornton Wilder's Our Town briefly return to her grave on the hill and says, "Good-bye, good-bye, Grover's Corner... Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking... and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths... and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. (She looks toward the stage manager and asks abruptly, through her tears) Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it -- every minute?" And the stage manager replies, "No. The saints and poets, maybe -- they do some."
At this time of year, be one of those saints and poets. Prevent spiritual Alzheimer's where there is an amnesia for the little things done for us and we are forgetful of how important the very people who sleep alongside us, walk with us during the day, and sit with us in the evening are. Yes, amidst all of the bustle, take just two minutes each day to experience the fragility exercise so you can enjoy this holiday season more than ever before -- no matter how little you have or how bustling your schedule is. What a present that would be, not only to yourself but to those who you are with because one of the greatest gifts you can share with others is a sense of your own peace and gratitude... but you can't share what you don't have.
Robert J. Wicks, who received his doctorate in psychology from Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital, is on the faculty of Loyola University Maryland and the author of Streams of Contentment: Lessons I Learned on My Uncle's Farm. His website is: robertjwicks.com.