the stories we tell

I grew up in a conservative Christian environment. In my childhood church, jewelry and dancing were akin to divorce, and divorce was the doing of the Devil. Imagine my identity crisis, then, when at the age of 26 I learned that my parents were getting a divorce. Divorced? What did that make me? The Devil’s child?

You think I’m kidding; I’m not. My entire identity and foundation were shaken. I now came from a broken home. This was NOT supposed to happen.

The reality is, of course, that 50 percent of marriages in the States end in divorce. My parents’ union was no exception. Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world, and not all marriages last until “death do us part.” I had bought into a lie.

Interestingly, I get a similar feeling around the holidays. Christmas and New Years are surrounded by so much hype. We have this idea about what they’re supposed to look like — with presents and snowflakes and family and laughter — but the reality is often much darker. For many people Christmas means debt and loneliness and sadness and depression. Suicide attempts increase around the holidays. I myself struggle to feel excited about Christmas every year.

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Why? you might ask. Why not? My life looks nothing like the Hallmark movies or anything it’s supposed to. Why wouldn’t I feel sad?

But perhaps the bigger question is: Why did I buy into those Hollywood narratives? Where did I get these expectations in the first place?

At our cores, I believe we all seek approval. We all want to love and be loved. We’re idealists born reaching for the stars, and we’re hard-wired to seek meaning and connection. This is what binds us. This is what makes us human . . . But life inevitably lets us down; in one way or another, reality “checks” each of us dreamers.

And that leads me to my next question: Once we know life will let us down, why do we perpetuate these expectations? Why do we continue telling false fairy tales?

I think we do for a few reasons. Fairy tales give us hope, and hope gives us a reason to keep moving. We need superheroes and Hallmark stories to give us something to strive for. We need to believe that things can be better than they are. But, but . . . Do these narratives also do harm? Would it be better if the stories we told were a little more realistic? Accepting my parents’ divorce would have been far easier if I hadn’t believed it meant they shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place. Christmas, too, would be a lot easier if the holiday stories we told evoked a sense of normalcy rather than elevated exceptions to “real life.”

Because let’s face it — there is no perfect family. We’re all flawed individuals working through our “stuff,” and family and friend dynamics are never simple. December is a month just like any other. Why would we try to sell it as more?

But I don’t know . . . What do you think? Could we do our life and holiday narratives better? Or are they fine the way they are? What would you change about them if you could?

 

19 thoughts

    • You’re right that we are our own worst enemies. Some people may be more susceptible to fairy tales and outside pressures than others. There is much more to my story than I’ve written here. Sometimes the best I can do is hint. Perhaps I should start an anonymous blog… I wish you the best in the new year, too! My last two years have been exceedingly challenging. But at least I’ve started writing again!

  1. I wrote a blog piece about this on Christmas morning. Holidays like this have become “have tos” instead of “want tos.” At least for me they have. And it sounds like maybe for you as well. There is this need to keep up, to prove something, and I want nothing to do with that. I’d much rather give or receive a meaningful, thoughtful gift on April 12th than what passes for gift-giving at Christmas/Hanukah. Or spend quality time with close friends on a random Tuesday evening in the middle of the summer, than the “have to” of the fourth Thursday in November. There is far too much of this stuff for me. All the times when we have to see these people or buy gifts for this thing or that thing and all I want to do is ask “why”? Because we have to, because nobody really thinks about it. It’s part of that fairy tale you mention. If we buy somebody a gift on their birthday and at Christmas, and spend time with them on Thanksgiving … then everything is ok, isn’t it?

    • I also ask ‘why’ when people get each other gifts during this time of the year. And I think you are right – it is part of the fairy tale. I’m not much into receiving gifts on any occasion, but it is always nice to receive a gift, knowing someone thought of you, reminding you that you have a bit of place in this world.

    • I popped over to your blog. I agree with you about the gift-giving sentiments. You’re right — the “have tos” of the holidays are out of control.The thing I dislike most, though, is the fairytale family scenarios we see. I mean, sure, there are plenty of movies in Hollywood that point out the dysfunction in people’s lives (and laugh at it), but still, the ads and social media, etc., tend to gloss that piece over. I myself have multiple homes and people to make happy since my parents divorce. It’s not fun. Dan (above) is right that we have to be happy with ourselves first, but there are definitely multiple competing factors at play.

      • One of my problems is that the older I get the more introverted I become, the less I want to spend time with large groups of people, particularly when I know there are undercurrents of dysfunction within the group. I want to be with people who like being with each other. When I hear how Joe doesn’t like Steve and Susie is mad at Bill and the Jones don’t like the Crawford’s … wait a sec, why are we all getting together then?

  2. This was such a brutally honest post, and it takes a lot of guts to admit that what you believed in wasn’t meant to be. Very sorry to hear of how you feel about what you’ve always known for most of your life, that happy endings aren’t meant to be in some instances. You are every right in saying that the holiday season isn’t all rosy for all of us, and that so many of us seek approval. So many of us want better, want more, and probably because Hollywood and the media all claim that is possible which you alluded to. I think we seek approval because we want to be accepted, to be loved and honestly…I reckon love is an innate feeling within us that we all desire. And that is the hard part – we can’t not love or can’t not want love or find a place where we can just be and belong.

    ‘I myself struggle to feel excited about Christmas every year…December is a month like any other.’ You summed up my feelings about Christmas and really any holiday that comes around – New Year’s, Easter, Chinese New Year and so on. I do acknowledge that I have led a relatively privileged life with a good roof over my head and education. But when it comes to the narrative a close knit home for me, that is something I have always been contemplative about. I don’t know if some of us can do ‘better’, because I feel that no one is better than the other as a person or life…we just have to make do and be thankful as pessimistic as this may sound.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful reading and comment, Mabel! I think my frustration is just the expectation that is built in around Christmas. Now that my family is split, I have to divide my time between family groups. There’s tension, and I have to make sure I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. It’s a lot of pressure. No one mentions that in the holiday ads. In the holiday ads, everyone is laughing and smiling — Christmas is all fun and games. It’s NOT all fun and games.

      When I ask the question, “Can we do better?” I mean, can we do better as a society? No one person can change the narrative around Christmas, but we as a group can choose not to buy into the consumerism that the media outlets preach around the holidays. And you’re right — we all have to make do and be thankful for what we have. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that any one person or life is better than another!

  3. “What do you think? Could we do our life and holiday narratives better? Or are they fine the way they are? What would you change about them if you could?”

    2nd question: I’m not sure much better is possible. With the exception of the fundamental Christian-radicals that push ‘Christ is the reason for the season’ stuff, sometimes in your face, I find that the majority of Americans make Xmas more about kindness, giving, family, fun, and general good will for all — I’m fine with that! :) Some “traditions,” whether based in legend or Greco-Roman pagan rituals, are an excellent uniting festival/ceremony for communities! I really like those. :D But they do not necessarily have to be on Dec. 25, which is again a pagan date (winter solstice festivals?).

    Last question: What really REALLY needs to change about all our American seasons, holidays, festivals, etc, is the hyper-commercialization and hyper-consumerism. The latter group, us regular consumers need to remember that our time with OTHERS and how we impact each other dear to us… is really what a whole, fulfilling life is all about…
    no matter the holiday, festival, or season!

    Regarding “hope”:
    The best way out is always through.
    — Robert Frost

    So just learn to fail better! ;)

    Regarding “love/marriage”?
    I have a TON to say about that too long to write here… some of it what people like to hear, others it scares them or makes their skin crawl. Hahaha! But I will say this:

    I believe there are MANY forms of love and we all should practice all of them as much as possible! The ancient Greeks practiced extensively at least SIX different forms of love daily/weekly…
    • Ludus
    • Philia
    • Agape
    • Eros
    • Pragma
    • Philautia

    Being diverse, or even superbly diverse, gives us a better chance of a fuller life lived! <3

    • You make a lot of good points, Professor. I agree that Christmas and the holiday season are largely about good will, kindness, and giving. I have no problem with those, either. I do wish our society were more focused on these things year-round, but that’s a topic for another post.

      I also agree that the hyper-commercialism needs to change. The “keeping up with the Joneses” aspect of Christmas is absurd. And the way stores jump from one holiday to the next is also ridiculous. I saw Valentine’s Day stuff out in Target before Christmas. Give me a break!

      I LOVE the Robert Frost quote. “Through” as the only way out has certainly been the case in my life. And, yes, love in all of its forms is a necessity throughout life. I believe that sympathy/empathy is a part of this, and maybe that’s something I was alluding to (unknowingly) in my post. If we were more in tune with what others might be feeling/thinking around the holidays, and if we were responsive to that, I think it would go a long way.

    • Hahaha… thank you FraggleRocking. I much prefer the Minimalist material-life with Maximum human chemistry (the intangibles) throughout the ENTIRE year, not just a holiday here, a festival there, and done. Lots of laughing, kindness and giving go a long long way, eh? Happy holidays to you and a fabulous New Year! Cheers!

      • It would certainly be good if the feeling of good will to all men happened all year round, but it doesn’t, we all get bogged down in the shite. I think Christmas, whilst being a fairytale, allows us to stop, and regroup, and remember the good things about ourselves.

  4. Astute and insightful post! The problem with the ideals of marriage is that they were handed down to us from an age where people died far younger than we do now – often they didn’t have ‘time’ for the marriage to move through different phases. There was also far less choice and option – society was suppressed, women had fewer rights to get out of a bad marriage and religion suffocated morality (even though the idea of marriage goes way beyond the history of religion and Christianity, it astonishes me how Christianity thinks it can and should control the concept of marriage). Another way of looking at it is that we think that if a marriage ends it fails, when in fact a couple may have had many happy and successful years together before they separated. These successful years can far outweigh the bad times but a divorce means everyone seems to remember the latter over the former.

    Last but not least I was relieved when my parents divorced, for both their sake in moving on from each other and rediscovering their lives, but it was still a difficult process for all of us. i hope you and your family find happiness in and peace in 2018.

    • Thank you so much, Alex… I agree with much of what you say. I think in an ideal world marriage *would* last forever. But we do not live in an ideal world. People get married too young or for the wrong reasons; they grow apart or refuse to grow together… Sadly we aren’t born knowing all. If I had gotten married in my twenties, I wonder where I’d be today. I’ve changed a lot in the last ten years. Marriage takes maturity.

      I was not relieved initially when my parents got divorced, but I now see that things could not have turned out any other way. I am lucky in that my parents have both remarried wonderful people. Things could be much worse.

      Best wishes to you in 2018!!

  5. I take exception to the premise. Imagine what our lives would be like without the picture in our head. Not better than what they are now. There is nothing wrong with the picture. It is a worthy ideal. A goal if you please. What is wrong is our unwillingness to forgive ourselves and others when we cannot match the picture. Inevitably, no one ever does. To err is human, to forgive is divine. It is the forgiveness that we struggle with. I don’t know about you, but I do not hate the picture. The picture always makes me smile, gather up my courage, collect my wits, and move ahead with a healthy sprinkling of forgiveness.

    • Hi Uncle Russell, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts! Umm… I understand where you’re coming from. I agree that the picture inside our heads gives us something to strive for. But… What I *don’t* like is the pressure we feel around the holidays. After all, for many people the forgiveness that is needed isn’t of themselves — it’s of life. I guess I’m just trying to be more realistic because my own idealism has always let me down.

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