“Peace begins when expectation ends.” — Sri Chinmoy
My family recently celebrated several milestones of honor. Turning 16 and now boasting a driver’s license, my nephew has intensified his campaign to own that ever-elusive Mustang. Meanwhile, his parents celebrated their 50th birthdays. The grandest of celebrations, however, honored my parents, who both turned 80 this year.
This special event warranted all the hoopla we could muster. We reserved my parents’ favorite restaurant, which has played host to their Saturday date nights for more than 30 years. We ordered a three-tiered cake that was glazed in teal and decorated in white-and-black lattice and beads. Cherries jubilee, my father’s favorite dessert, was assembled to accompany the cake.
Furthermore, decorations, flowers and unique trinkets were crafted and arranged to create a special tribute to family members. We compiled a soundtrack, with a conglomerate of music specially selected to appeal to each of the honorees. We hired a photographer to document this precious event. The drinks were poured. The food was delectable. Everything was perfect.
Except … the music wouldn’t play because there was no access to Wi-Fi … and the cake leaned like the Tower of Pisa as it settled on the stand … and the toast I had spent hours preparing didn’t come out quite as eloquently as rehearsed. Even the cherries jubilee failed to ignite, requiring the dousing — OK, the dumping — of more brandy than should ever be used in any dessert.
It was a circus of mishaps. Nothing turned out as planned. But once we were able to lean into the moment and dispel our illusions of control and perfection, we engaged in merry-making and memory-making that will last a lifetime.
Five tips for enjoying the holidays
‘Tis the season for gatherings filled with song, culinary bliss, gifts and expectations. Invariably, it is the stress generated from these expectations that diminishes the magic that can be found among family, friends and festivities. Rather than succumb to the tyranny of expectations, here are five liberating suggestions for the holidays:
1) Focus on the moment. Often we impose expectations around time. We either have the perception of too much or, more commonly, too little time. However, time is, according to Einstein, an illusion.
Therefore, spending precious time in the past or the future can be futile. Focus on the moment at hand. What is it that you want to remember about this moment? Is it the perfectly crafted table setting and trimmed tree … or is it the communion of family? Finally, find ways to simplify your schedule. Prioritize activities and give attention only to those that are meaningful to you.
2) Set boundaries, and don’t take it personally. Setting boundaries is probably the most powerful tool you have for protecting against the stress that is sometime generated by family and friends. Be clear and assertive. If you are unable to host an event, then (practice with me) just say, “NO.”
No is a complete sentence and really does not require an explanation. If you feel compelled to provide an explanation, then do so … but do not personalize any response you may receive. Everyone is entitled to her or his reaction; however, we do not need to take that reaction on. If Aunt Susan always criticizes your sweet potato casserole (regardless of how much you modify it to her specifications), then let it go. This is not about your casserole. Aunt Susan simply benefits from the illusion of control she exerts when she criticizes. It is her baggage — you don’t need to carry it.
3) Think in possibilities rather than expectations. Unlike expectations, which often hold assumptions from past experience and promote rigid thinking, possibilities are based in the mystery of the moment. All things are possible in any given moment. It is possible Uncle Tommy won’t have too much eggnog and need a ride home. It is possible that the cousins won’t engage in a passionate dispute over political views this year. Possibilities allow room for change.
4) Embrace the mishaps. If we must carry expectations at all, then expect that mishaps will occur. Stuff happens. Presents don’t arrive on time. Dinners don’t look like their airbrushed pictures in the magazines. People … well, people can be temperamental. Yet it is often the mishaps that generate the charming memories that we hold so dear.
5) Remember that it is temporary. In the midst of the hustle and bustle and family dynamics, remember that it is all temporary. All of it. The holiday. The time together. The busyness that we impose on ourselves and each other. It is simply a flash, and then it is over. All that remains are the memories we have chosen to create. Therefore, craft wisely.
The pictures from my parents’ celebration arrived recently — 335 snapshots that captured moments from this monumental family event. Each print portrayed a perfect interaction of smiles and hugs. Beautifully set tables, the cake perfectly straight and tall, the cherries jubilee aflame.
Yet behind each perfect pose and print resided another story … a narrative flawed by imperfections. A narrative that fades into our family history of “mostly happily ever after.”
From my family to yours … Peace and Happy Holidays!
Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland, and a visiting full-time faculty member in the pastoral counseling program at Loyola University Maryland. Her current research is titled “Sex, Spirituality and Stage III Breast Cancer.” She is also writing a book, Homegrown Psychotherapy: Scientifically Based Organic Practices, that speaks to nature-informed wisdom. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.