Today is the Winter Solstice, an astronomical event that officially ushers in the season of winter. This is a time characterized by extremity. The shortest day and longest night of the year. In my office, it is also a time of extreme feeling. It is the HOLIDAY SEASON, a time when familial relationships take center stage. For many, it is not an easy few weeks.
In our culture during this season, there is a collective longing for a wonderful celebration of togetherness and joy. Yet this is sometimes not the lived experience, and the discrepancy between expectation and reality can be painful. It is a time of year when familial realities and status are magnified. In situations of divorce, one parent may have the children that year, the other not. A single person may feel not just unpartnered, but unlovable. The illness, dying or loss of a loved one may be particularly heart wrenching. The disappointments, rivalries, resentments and bitterness between family members may be in the foreground, unhappily taking up psychic space and energy.
The anticipation of the intensity of feeling generated by being together with family, who are avoided for most of the year, can be overwhelming. Particularly when a patient is in the midst of psychotherapy, and feels raw and in some instances, newly aware of painful dynamics between themselves and various family members. This can create considerable trepidation at the thought of spending three or four days together.
In Boston the beloved teacher of my teachers was a psychiatrist named Elvin Semrad (1909-1976). He taught that the task of psychotherapy was to help patients acknowledge, bear and put into perspective what they were up against in their lives. Often much time in psychotherapy is spent on accepting what is. For many, a great source of suffering is wanting to change loved ones who cannot be changed. No matter what you do, try, or say, it’s the same old story.
This is where the gift of “whatever” comes in. It is a great relief to let go, and allow your mother, father, sister, brother, daughter or son, to be who they are, without feeling devastated by their emotional, physical and spiritual limitations; their own history of trauma or misery, their selfishness, insensitivity, depression, self-sabotogue or addiction. “Whatever” is different than denial, which is a distortion of reality. “Whatever” acknowledges what the situation is, but responds with eyes wide open and acceptance. Denial runs the risk of being blindsided by reality. Acceptance, by contrast, takes reality into account and adapts. This often is only possible after a period of grieving, which is the single most powerful catalyst for the capacity to move on and let go.
Often people assume responsibility for a family member’s condition, and feel inappropriate guilt, as though it is somehow their own fault that their loved one is so impaired or disappointing. It is a great achievement to recognize the limits of one’s power, and to finally get it that “it’s not about me, it’s about them”. It thereby becomes possible to let go of inappropriate guilt. Guilt, often of the unconscious variety, is at the heart of many instances of depression, anxiety, addiction, and basic self sabotogue in all important areas of living, for many people.
“Whatever” is knowing what’s the deal with another person or situation, what is the limit of your power to effect a change, and what is your legitimate responsibility. It often entails recognition that this is just the way he/she/ it is, and having that be OK with you. You may still deeply wish it was otherwise, and feel terribly sad about the situation, but you accept the reality and do not feel badly about yourself, which just adds insult to injury. I have always resonated with the famous Serenity Prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Thank you, dear readers, for providing me with this opportunity to talk with you about what I care most about, and to tell you how I see things. At this most powerful time of the yearly cycle, I wish all of you many blessings for the New Year.