Thanksgiving and the December holidays bring stress to many

Rabbi MICHAEL LERNER

By Rabbi MICHAEL LERNER
An excerpt from a recent e-mail essay sent to The Jewish World

Not everyone is looking forward to the next five weeks of holiday celebrations. In my work as a psychotherapist at the Institute for Labor and Mental Health and as a rabbi for Beyt Tikkun I’ve run groups for people who are actually facing intense holiday stress. It’s important for all of us to keep the reasons for that stress in mind. A casual “Happy Holidays” said to people whose situation you don’t know can often trigger upset and deepening depression.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. There are many people who are single and don’t have a wide circle of friends with whom to celebrate. Some have no one with whom to celebrate.
  2. Though I’ve described in detail in my new book Revolutionary Love how the capitalist marketplace and  ideology foster self-blaming that is carried by at least 80% of the U.S. population, that self-blaming is dramatically reinforced in these next five weeks by endless appeals for people to buy things as holiday gifts in order to show that you really care for them. In addition, many of the television ads show seemingly ordinary people buying extraordinarily expensive gifts. When children see these ads, they often feel that their parents are failing them if those parents don’t buy all the flashy things that they have come to believe that everyone gets but them. Parents, and friends, faced with these kinds of messages, often buy gifts they can’t really afford, put it on their credit cards, and suffer in silence, knowing how hard it will be to pay off this credit card debt. In class-stratified Western societies the pressure to show yourself as at least “somewhat successful” leads to a frenzy of buying and few people have the support systems needed to resist and say “no, I’m not spending money for things that I don’t need and that I have no reason to believe others need this holiday season.” Many people are sad because they see how much is wasted in this society as people buy things they don’t need and these end up sooner or later as junk polluting our oceans, land, and air.
  3. The culture also encourages consumption of alcohol as a way for people who actually are not so happy to momentarily let go of their fears and minor depressions so that they can appear to be as happy as everyone else. Not only does this contribute to addictions of all sorts (most recently to opioids and other new forms of addiction) but it also puts immense pressure on people who have been recovering from addictions to show that they too can drink or take various chemical ways to make them appear momentarily happy.
  4. Of course the elites of wealth and power don’t want people to think critically about unnecessary consumption or about the self-justificatory lie that underlies the way the capitalist society justifies its vast disparity of wealth and power in this society by teaching that “you create your own reality” because we we live in a meritocracy and hence that if you were smarter or worked harder you’d have the money to buy the many things that the capitalist marketplace offers. In Revolutionary Love I present a much fuller picture of how this self-blaming underlies much of the pain people experience all year round, and more intensely from Thanksgiving through the secular New Year.
  5. The groups that I ran for holiday stress were immensely successful in helping people understand why they sometimes feel down during this season, or feel that they are failing their families, friends and loved ones by not buying more and more expensive presents for them.
  6. So here is what you can do:
  7. Talk about these issues to your friends and send this e-mail to everyone you know and encourage them to do the same and speak about these issues to their friends and put this message on all their (and your) social media.
  8. Talk to children about making the holidays a time to give love, but not necessarily THINGS to show love.
  9. Offer gifts of your time to others that really would help their lives.

In short, giving is a wonderful thing to do, but separate it from spending money as much as possible. And attend to the feelings of those who don’t have families or friendship circles thick enough to give them a feeling that there are others in their lives who really care about them (and yes, you could invite some of these to your home for a meal or a holiday party even if they are not yet already part of your circle of friends—stretch yourself to open to others and bring them into your life).

One caution: don’t read this as putting down anyone who spends money for a gift for others—in trying to shift the culture, I don’t mean to be putting anyone down who has bought into its money-orientation, but only to invite some important steps toward what I call in Revolutionary Love “A New Bottom Line” of love, kindness, generosity, caring for each other and caring for the earth, responding all others as manifestations of the sacred and responding to our universe with awe, wonder and radical amazement.

All of this is one small part of building a world of love and generosity, the goal of Tikkun, our interfaith and secular-humanist and atheist-welcoming Network of Spiritual Progressives and our Movement for Love and Justice (www.tikkun.org/lj).

Many blessings to you as you navigate thru the joys and the challenges of this coming holiday season.

Rabbi Michael Lerner
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Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, chairman of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue-Without-Walls in Berkeley, Calif. He is the author 11 books, including two national bestsellers—The Left Hand of God and Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation. His most recent book is Revolutionary Love, published in October 2019 from University of California Press. He  may be contacted at rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com.

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