I was in a deep funk.
In the midst of packing boxes and making holiday plans and attending my grandmother’s funeral and trying to work in a half-empty apartment (part of the contents of which had already disappeared with their new owner), I unraveled. I grew anxious and angry.
Why was it always my responsibility to make plans with my friends—did it mean they didn’t want to be around me very much? What did it say about me that I lost friends? Why couldn’t I let go of people who didn’t want to be close to me anymore? Why did my family have to be so complicated and frustrating? Why was my husband expecting so much of me—didn’t he know I was feeling frail? What was wrong with me that I couldn’t function better? Why were the holidays always so hard?
I’m good at stewing. I can ruminate on a sole topic for days, or weeks, or longer. I can go to bed exhausted and then still lie awake hours later, spinning and respinning particular events, thoughts, words, emotions, writings, over and over through my brain, seemingly unable to stop the cycle. On rare occasions, I get this worked up over good things, but usually, it’s the opposite. Why did he get that look on his face? What did she really mean by those five words? If I dream at these times, it’s always of puzzles with too many missing pieces. I’m usually lacking full eyesight in these dreams—it’s me without my glasses—and I’m overcome with confusion. But I keep striving and striving to no avail.
At one point in this episode, my sage husband told me, “Never attribute to malice what you can attribute to any other cause.” I laughed good-naturedly and called him Confucius. Part of me felt he was right, but part of me felt wronged. By anyone, everyone, myself included. I tried to be gentle with myself to ascertain what was really wrong, but I struggled against that, too. What could I be worth if all these people didn’t care to try harder to understand me?
We were in the car, my husband driving, and I stared blankly out the window, ruminating further—my frustration at a low boil. Even though it is important for us to have boundaries and expect other people to treat us decently, I don’t generally struggle with that. I struggle with the opposite—expecting too much of others and myself. The thought popped into my brain that perhaps, in this season of Advent, I should stop for a while asking why others couldn’t give me more, and I should start asking what I could give. Somehow, that thought was a revelation to me. And so I thought about what bothered me, and I asked myself: what can I give to these situations? What can I give to these people?
Like the Grinch, I felt my heart expand with the questions.
Gratitude—that was the first thing. Yes, I spend much more time planning activities with friends (and fielding ‘no’ responses, which I often take too personally) than my friends do for me. But a few days before, who had come over to help me move items from one house to another (which I view as one of the most irritating jobs in friendship)? Several friends. And who had written me a very thoughtful email about my recent difficulties despite being nearly overwhelmed with her own? My friend. And so on—friends, family, the world, and my husband: they all deserved gratitude and not just frustration.
What else could I offer? Understanding—the same understanding and empathy I felt I wasn’t receiving adequately from others. I thought about how nearly everyone is juggling too much this time of year, and coming into the holidays with their own fears, expectations, hopes, and trepidation . . . their own emotional baggage from their life histories and personalities. Just like me. The combination makes things difficult, and people are generally doing the best they can. “Never attribute to malice what you can attribute to any other cause”—he has a point. Even if the person is being malicious, you may be better off emotionally if you work from a different assumption.
Gratitude for what I was receiving, understanding for what others weren’t able to offer me: somehow, in offering other people those elements, I was able to be more generous with myself about my own gifts and shortcomings, as well. In the coming days, through additional aggravations in our move, as I would feel the anger and frustration well up inside me again, I would think, “How do I offer gratitude in this situation? How do I offer understanding?” and I would calm down to a manageable level of emotions again.
Three days ago, someone stole boxes of my clothes, shoes, and jewelry from the back of our car while we were moving. I was rightfully furious and sad when I realized what I’d lost, especially since I had already pared down my belongings to only keep what I really wanted. I could have ruminated for weeks on that one loss. At our Christmas party two nights ago, a friend told me he’d heard about the theft of my belongings, and that he was sorry. “It does suck,” I replied. “But I’m trying to look at it positively and remember that at least I have renter’s insurance to cover most of it. The benefit now is that I can be very careful about what I purchase to replace those things, to make sure I’m only buying what I will cherish.” He and another friend looked at me skeptically. “But it’s okay to be mad!” they said.
And it is, absolutely. As I’ve covered before, hurt hurts–there’s no denying it. But it doesn’t do me any good to stay stuck in mad, or sad, or anxious, forever. It’s my own life I’m harming when I don’t make room for more pleasant viewpoints.