“All we have is the present moment. Focus on it; don't miss an experience by living outside of the current moment.” - Chris Shea
This time of the year, between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, is expected to typically be a time of joy, family gatherings, and the celebration of traditions. This is a time of the year when I reflect upon my childhood memories; memories filled with awe and wonder as the world seemed to be magical. Unfortunately, this time of the year is also one of increased stress due to all the activities we feel we need to do. Our wish to make this time of the year "perfect" increases our expectations, many of them unreasonable, causing us to overwork in our planning efforts.
"Preparing Christmas" Norman Rockwell
As a child I fondly recall watching the animated Christmas specials and reading all the Christmas books I could find. All of those stories not only have a positive ending, most of them depict a time of perfection. In these stories families gather and get along with each other, the house is majestically decorated, the dining room table set to rival the fanciest restaurant. My favorite American painter, Norman Rockwell, painted scenes of American life; some showing pain and suffering, others idyllic life scenes. Rockwell's holiday paintings are among my favorite as they depict a world I wish existed, although knowing that a perfect world doesn't exist.
This longing of mine, like the desire and longing of many other people, is part of the cause of our stress during the holiday season. We tend to focus our attention on the remembrances of the past, coupled with fictional idealisms of the holiday, producing a desire to re-create what never was, nor most likely ever will be. The holidays, as we perceived them in childhood, cannot now be exactly reproduced through the perceptions of us as adults, nor can we expect to create an experience depicted in the controlled environment of scripts, actors, and a stage.
The issue that I encounter this time of the year is one of unrealistic expectations. Trying to re-create a "perfection" which cannot be created means that we will fall short in our attempt. If I fall short, then I must have failed. That is the perception of many people, propelling them forth to not "fail", while "failing" is exactly what will happen when we pursue perfection.
We do have control over our feelings and our current moment. Let's not lose the experience of what is currently happening by living in either the past or the future. Experience the present moment for what it is. As I recall my childhood memories of the holidays, I try to keep them focused in the experience of the moment. Don't let an expectation of perfection cloud the beauty of the memory and of the feeling that memory is now producing in you. Enjoy the memory and the feeling without trying to do anything with or to it. It is. You are. Live the moment without expectation and you will find that the stress of perfection will fade.
This holiday season, here are the steps I am working on to keep myself as stress free as possible:
- Refocus expectations: Take time to reflect on your expectations, considering what is realistic and what is not realistic. For example, we may want a house decorated as we've seen in advertisements, but, no matter how hard we try it never looks as it does in the picture. If you reframe your expectation and perception, you would recognize that you haven't failed, actually you created something unique, something that reflects you, not an ad.
- Change our perception: Changing the way we perceive ourselves will change our perception of our world. Therefore, changing our view of this time of the year will change our expectations and so reduce our stress. For example, if you are hosting family, and the reality is that your uncle always makes a fool of himself at these family gatherings, keep your perspective focused on reality. Plan for what you can in expectation of your uncle's shenanigans, for when your uncle acts as he always acts, don't let it stress you; he is only doing as you expected him to do (and you previously planned for it). At least he's consistent.
- Learn from your past: It's important to spend time reflecting on our past, honoring the memories for what they are, and sharing them with current family and friends. Our past has shaped who we are today. Use the lessons of the past to create a present moment of peace. The purpose of the past is not to be recreated in the present, but to be incorporated with the present. Take what was positive for you in the past and use it in the present. What wasn't positive for you in the past, modify now in the present to be more positive. Our past was not perfect; don't expect the present or the future to be perfect either.
- Simplify your life: Easier said than done, I know. But if you think about it, our material goods, although useful, can be a source of our stress when our focus emphasizes our “things”. Living simply means keeping a proper focus, or perspective, on what is truly important in your life. Keep your expectations and perceptions rooted on who we are, not on who you think you should be.
During this holiday time of the year, take the time to enjoy the wonders, joy, and magic of the season. Keep your perspective and expectations reasonable to reduce your stress. Most importantly, focus on what is truly important to you!