Of course our holidays are madness. And as we are increasingly sucked into the parties, gift exchanges, pageants, and family gatherings, it seems we can’t help but feel like all the meaning of these “holy days” was accidentally stuffed inside the holiday dinner turkey or buried beneath the Christmas tree.
Since my wife and I moved to Iraq with our (now) two kids in the middle of the Iraq War (detailed in my new book, Preemptive Love), a combination of outside pressures and internal controls have helped our family reclaim some of the essence of the holidays, not only in December, but every day of the year.
From Fallujah, Iraq to Fresno, Calif. here are four ways we can live beyond ourselves during the holidays.
1. Enjoy grace.
Hidden in the too-familiar lines of our favorite Christmas carols and holiday traditions is an extraordinary claim:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King!
I have to admit, I sometimes wonder if it’s true; maybe a relic of a bygone era. But every year our kids thrill over those lyrics, and the fact that they actually receive that news as joy challenges my Christmas cynicism and agnostic doubt.
And though the story for us typically culminates on Dec. 25, effectively marking the end of the holiday season, the story and its claims are the essential starting point for experiencing the season for all its worth.
The carol continues:
No more let sins and sorrows grow, Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow Far as the curse is found
The word “grace” is still the best word to capture all this meaning, and I think it’s the fuel for living beyond ourselves. In fact, the idea that the thorniness and cursedness of a place like Iraq, crippled by decades of war and despotism, can be rolled back, undone, and remade into something beautiful is what keeps us pushing forward in our work with Preemptive Love Coalition to provide lifesaving heart surgeries to Iraqi children each day.
If the whole season hinges on the story of a baby who came to overcome sin and sorrows and make his blessings flow, then we can rightly prioritize all the other holiday noise (our activity, even our hospitality and generosity, is not the point) and deeply enjoy the grace to which every smile and every gift is pointing.
2. Dish out thanks.
We’ve all experienced the uptick in gratitude that comes around this time of year. And I’ve never heard anyone complain about it! Scientists are even coming around to understand the power of thankfulness, linking it to to “better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life, and kinder behavior toward others.”
Giving thanks is an inherently subversive attack on holiday narcissism, and it is at the core of living beyond ourselves. When we give thanks, we admit that we have desires that cannot be met through more of ourselves. There are certain things that can only come to us from the outside, and that’s good news!
3. Savor your helping of thanks.
For many of us, this is more difficult than actually cultivating our own attitude of gratitude. But if you want to fully live beyond yourself this holiday season, and if you are actively extending hospitality and service to others, you’ve gotta learn to accept the gratitude of others without diminishing or downplaying it.
You know who you are, you who say things like, “Oh, it was nothing!” and “I just threw this together!” and “Don’t mention it!”
This is not accepting gratitude, this is a well-intentioned, but selfish, deflection that actually short-circuits the practice of giving thanks that your friends, family, and strangers are seeking to exercise with you. This deflection threatens others’ ability to really confess that they have desires and needs that could not be met inwardly. As such, demurring at others’ praise and thanks is not living beyond ourselves, but rather living for ourselves as we protect against the awkward exchange.
So, this season, as the praise and thanks are heaped on to your plate for all you’ve done, don’t decline, demure or deflect—don’t rob your loved ones the chance to fully experience their own gratitude. Instead, look your guests and, yes, even the stranger on the street, square in the eye and eat your thanks.
“Thank you for noticing!”
“That means a lot to me!”
“I really appreciate you saying so!”
You’ll both be better for it.
Do you dread seeing a particular family member, or take circuitous routes across the office to avoid certain coworkers at the holiday mixer? If you are dealing with real hurt, and not merely a rub of personalities, it may be time to forgive.
But where would we get the strength for such vulnerability?
Our years in Iraq have given us many an occasion to extend forgiveness: to the council of hardline clerics who issued a fatwa calling for our death; to the employees who have spied on us and broken into our homes; and to those who have threatened our families and betrayed us.
In every case, our ability to forgive comes back to the baby in the manager, because even though the story marks the end of the holidays, it has always been told as the fulcrum of a much larger story, in which the baby king-of-the-earth grows up and makes good on the promise to roll back the curse and make all things new. The grand finale is a loving intervention in which we are offered a chance to go free, in spite of our offenses, and the king is sentenced to death in our place.
To forgive others, when doing so seems like a betrayal of justice and common sense, it helps to remember that the serenity of the nativity is but a stop along the way in a grander narrative where every injustice is rightly dealt with and, remarkably, none of us get what we deserve.
In the end, and all along the way, “living beyond ourselves” produces untold benefits, happiness, and purpose. There’s really nothing better you could do for yourself this holiday season.
Photos courtesy of Preemptive Love Coalition