Baby Boomers have seen many winter holiday moons. We know how to turn out a great stuffing, light the yule log and find the perfect gift at the best price. So why, after all these years, do things sometimes spin out of our control--especially, it seems--during the holiday season? And more to the point, when we are hit with disappointment, loss and heightened levels of anxiety and pressure during the holidays, what can we do about it?
The answer is a lot--because study after study shows that resilience is less a matter of the things that happen to us, and more about the attitudes we adopt. In fact, research shows that the older we become, the more resilient we have the opportunity to become. But before we get to the technology of resilience, here's a peek at holiday stress, as viewed through the social scientist's lens.
Specifically, I am taking a page out of the book of my own expertise--ritual studies. Every one of the winter holidays comes complete with its own set of traditions. And taken together, the entire period leading up to Thanksgiving through our emergence on the other side of the new year--can be categorized as a ritual transition.
One of the key attitudinal issues that gets in the way of our experiencing all that the holiday season has to offer is that we tend to think of "the holidays" as celebration rather than ritual. A celebration is a wonderful thing--when it happens. Celebrations affirm the status quo. They confirm our role in the family and community. We may be busy--we may even be stressed--but there's more excitement than anxiety in the mix as we anticipate and experience the holiday events as they unfold. In other words, they make us feel good about the way things are. We feel powerful and even if challenged, we are more often that not in control. That's the upside. And trust me, if that's what you're not only anticipating--but having--put this blog down and pour yourself another eggnog. Hurray!
For the rest of us, we enter the more potent experience of ritual, the passage through time that disconfirms, rather than affirms, the status quo. Ritual scholars have a name for this: they call it "liminal space." You enter liminal space the moment you realize that this year may, will be or is different from previous years, the result of loss, disappointment or stress that has exceeded our sense of mastery.
The irony is that for the social scientists who study resilience--not to mention the mystics of most spiritual traditions--this is exactly the passage that holds the greater potential for growth, transformation and ultimately renewal. Think of this period as somewhat akin to the cocoon stage of the caterpillar--the mysterious and often disquieting transit between alternate realities. In fact, it may be argued that the more potent, transformative potential of ritual is in truth more in keeping with the spirit of the potent religious narratives that inspired the holidays in the first place.
So what do you do while the experts on such internal matters as departure from the status quo cheer you on? For starters, it's often enough just to remember to breathe. Wrap yourself in the warmest blanket and cozy down in the biggest armchair you can find and acknowledge what you're feeling.
In the beginning, you don't have to be brave or worry about cheering yourself and others up. In fact, if you are hit with the knowledge that your holidays are spinning out of control, the first thing you may need to do is grieve the loss of the fantasy. Once you've had a good pout, tantrum or cry over it, you'll find yourself able to embrace rather than suppress important parts of yourself that you will need to call upon in order to make the most of the holidays. And that, fellow Boomers, is--indulge me-- definitely something to celebrate.