Dear Sugar Shells,
Happy December (!) and a warm welcome to all you lovely new folks.
Oh, December. The word alone kind of makes me panic. Wanna see what I mean?
Please, join me on a tour of my anxiety-prone holiday brain:
“It's December! YES!!! Time to turn the calendar page. Wait, what?? The end of the year has arrived? What happened to November? Okay, must focus. No, must buy gifts!! At least for the sugar monkeys, of course - they're old enough that they probably expect Christmas presents now. Oh wait. Yuck. I hate obligated holiday gift-giving...so maybe I'll sit out this particular part of December. Can I do that? But no, I don’t want to be the one grinchy person who doesn’t bring gifts. I want to be the groovy aunt, not the stingy one. Mom indulges my anti-materialist stance - and the sibs even agree! - and so maybe we could try making the agreement (again) that only the kids get gifts? Every year someone breaks it. Why does that happen???! Why can't we stick to this agreement???! Oh, I remember now - tiny detail: usually the perpetrator is me. Well, I like giving gifts to people. Okay, never mind then. I have no discipline and therefore I give up. So am I shopping for gifts this year or not? Ooooh, free shipping!!!"
I'll conclude the tour there. That's more than enough crazy, right?
Eventually, usually, I buy a select few gifts and walk out of the shops feeling very proud of my accomplishments - I mean, the children's bookstore even offers free gift wrap! A+ for efficiency!!! - and then I can go home feeling enormously proud of myself.
But on my way to the car, I pass by someone collecting money for a charity or sometimes someone who appears to be homeless...
And, ohmygod. My brain breaks entirely. It cracks and shatters, and I'm in danger of becoming a puddle of All The Feelings right there on the sidewalk.
If I have coins in my pocket, I give. And I smile, and I mean it. But internally?
It goes something like this:
"I really really really should not have spent money on things, I should not have purchased gifts, I should have donated ALL of it. AGH! We should freaking eliminate gift requirements! - it has gotten so out of hand that the meaning is lost, etc. - and I can’t handle all the screaming need that is literally all around me! My heart literally hurts for all the need! There are refugees (!) and victims of violence (!) and abused women living in the shelter right across the railroad tracks here. AGH! So WHY on this green earth would I buy books, even for my dearest little ones - when they are already swimming in books? Couldn’t I just explain my position on materialism and let it be? Ohmygod, I'm DONE. Forever!!!"
So, you see? My brain is not a pretty place in December. I'm a sensitive soldier and sometimes things are hard.
Because I am devoted to sanity, there is good news here: I have learned how to get a-freaking-HOLD of myself. Today I'm sharing my process in case your brain tends to crack in December, too.
STEP 1: Sit down. Better yet, lie down. Get very still and quiet.
STEP 2: Take deep breaths. I don't care how unsexy or obvious this sounds - because conscious breathing WORKS. (Go for the gold and breathe only through your nose!)
STEP 3: Continue breathing, and notice that you're here.
STEP 4: By "here" I mean: you are in a space with a roof over your head (even if you're in a car) and therefore you are sheltered. You are likely also wearing clothes. That's awesome. Keep going! Perhaps the heater is on, and you are warm. That's also awesome! Do you have a snack in your purse or food in the refrigerator or a kind person who is bringing home a take-out dinner? Wow!! (Compared to many places in our world, this is downright luxury, of course.) Bask.
Get it? Simple, right?
Steps 1 - 3 transform the anxiety into calm, and Step 4 is what coaches like me call "a gratitude practice." It's totally do-able, and it works true wonders for me. I'm a devoted fan of gratitude feasting, as I've written before.
The whole point of practicing gratitude is to FEEL thankful. (Not to convince ourselves that we are good.)
When we focus our minds on all the immense privilege we enjoy, we begin feeling less anxious, less guilty, and - in my case - less insane. And if we're really counting our blessings like we mean it, there might be a little softening in the heart.. a slight smile might curl onto our faces...and we may feel a sudden urge to get up and give someone a hug. This is feeling grateful.
(Because, remember? Gratitude creates joy!!! Not the other way around!)
This is how we transmute guilt into gratitude. In December I work overtime on this one.
And for those of us enjoying tremendous privilege, I think it's our actual responsibility to do this alchemy. (Privilege and money are not antithetical to gratitude; what matters is how you use them, and that you take moments to count the many blessings.)
Because, from a place of peace, we can inspire genuine happiness in others. We can lovingly buy intentional gifts for our darlings. We can donate money to Kiva and other marvelous charitable organizations. We can help make eyes shine! We can give sincere thanks for all that we have, and feel extraordinarily wealthy regardless of what's in the bank. We can be generous.
We can infuse our days with an honest sense of holiness.
Which is really the whole point of December, right?
P.S. Did you know that gratitude reduces materialism?! So cool! (Read this!)
P.P.S. Guilt doesn't actually make us better people, even if your mind disagrees. Structurally, the brain rewards what Mom calls "the guilties." But that's another letter.