Saturday, December 04, 2004

Painful Christmases

I wrote an article for our local newspaper this week and with the Christmas season upon us, I thought it was a good opportunity to address a problem that is widespread, but one often unaddressed. That's why I also thought I'd share some thoughts here about people who experience emotional pain and sorrow during the very time of year that most of us are thinking about "joy to the world."

One of the great messages of Christmas is the announcement by an angel:
“Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." (Lk 2:10-11, NASB95)
That message is true, for Jesus came to do for us what we could never do. He came to be the sacrifice for sin, to become our claim to forgiveness and restoration to the Father. He eliminated the problem of sin wrapped up in the word "condemned." He gave us not only salvation, but all the blessings that come with it: fellowship with God, eternal life, a home in heaven and a joy that will last forever.

However, there are things in life that simply get in the way of all this joy. We need to realize that painful, emotional experiences in life short-circuit the celebration of joy and with the emotional pain, bring sadness, depression, and an inability to appreciate all that Jesus has done.

You can find a longer list of things that create this emotional pain, but a few important ones will make the point. Here is a list that I believe to be top contenders:
  • Death of a loved one
  • Coping with a terminal illness
  • Divorce or broken family
  • Physical separation from family or friends
  • Traumatic losses or setbacks
These are the kind of things that cause turmoil, suffering, heartache, and more. They can cripple a person's emotional state to the point that they dominate life. When that happens, the very times when we might expect people to find reason for joy are the very times that hurt the worst. Joy and celebration in others intensifies the pain and makes it even harder to experience the positive emotions enjoyed by others.

Some people may just need time to heal and cope with things happening in life. Others may benefit from treatment for depression. In all cases, I believe hurting people could benefit from a little understanding on the part of people don't have these problems.

There are no magic answers to these things, but I can make a few suggestions that might help reduce the pain, or refocus on other things so that the negative issues of life might loosen their hold. If you are suffering, please take these seriously. If you need more intense help, get it. It makes no sense to keep hurting when it's possible to find help. In the meantime, here is what I would suggest as a starting place.

  1. Admit your problem. Believe it or not, I have seen people who suffered intensely because they would not admit to their grief. You have to acknowledge the cause of your pain before you can ever deal with it positively. For many people, the admission is hard, but once made there is often a great release of the burden that accompanies it. Find someone you trust, someone who will keep confidential the things you need to say. Talk it out. Put into words exactly what is causing your pain. It's a starting place.
  2. Do not begrudge people who are celebrating the joy of the season. Acknowledge that while you might suffer, others might not. Permit others the expression of their joy without holding them hostage to any negative feelings on your part. Their joy is no attack on you, no denial of your experience of life, especially if they have no idea how you feel or what you are trying to overcome. If nothing else, find a way to be glad that others can be joyful.
  3. Change yourself by seeking a higher purpose for your life. In short, since you understand how hard the season can be on people, find a way to reach out and help others who are hurting. There are countless ways to do this. Get involved with a church group or civic group that is helping the poor, the homeless, the hungry. Jail ministries abound in needs for people willing to help prisoners. Hospitals and nursing homes are full of lonely people who would love a visit or some special care. Children need some substitute "Santas" to make sure they have some gifts like their friends. Soup kitchens, recycled clothing sources, and countless charity organizations abound giving ample opportunity to get involved in helping others. Just look around where you are. You might just be a friend to someone closeby.
  4. Rethink the whole message of Christmas. You may discover that the promise of joy is not empty, but very real. You may need to get a fresh insight into what Jesus came to do, how he does it and why. You may discover that any guilt you feel for the way life has turned bad for you can be relieved with the Lord's forgiveness. You may need to know that Jesus didn't come to help people who have no problems, but those whose lives were filled with pain and suffering.
I hope your holidays are truly filled with the joy of the season, but if not, I hope you won't settle for the pain and anguish you are experiencing. Following the suggestions above will not remove the cause of your pain, nor will they cause you to deny any truth or reality. They can help you refocus and find other reasons to live. They can help you rediscover your joy, or maybe find it for the first time. The joy of Christmas doesn't mean that life is without problems. It does mean that in spite of all our sorrows and failings, God can bring us a whole new experience of life.