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Surviving Christmas
7 min read

The shadow under the Christmas tree

Psychologist, Roger Bretherton, offers advice for those who find it challenging to spend time with the family at Christmas.
Part 1 of Unwrapping God This Christmas.

Roger Bretherton is Associate Professor of Psychology, at the University of Lincoln. He is a UK accredited Clinical Psychologist.

A light green pine tree stands amidst dark green forest and its black shadows
Evgeni Evgeniev on Unsplash.

The Ghost of Christmas cranberries past 

I am haunted by a Christmas ghost. But mine isn’t Jacob Marley weighed down with chains. It’s Nigella Lawson, and she comes carrying cranberries. One merry Yuletide many moons ago, I made the mistake of cooking, thanks to Nigella, what my family largely agree to be the best cranberry sauce ever.  It was easy. I just followed the recipe, and a delicious sauce was born. Unfortunately, I have never been able to repeat the feat. Every year I return to the same recipe, in the same kitchen, with staggeringly different results. Results which my family, who have always been a bit too kind for their own good, insist on eating out of some perverted sense of duty. Over the last half decade, we have basically invented a new Christmas tradition: pop the crackers, don the hats, supress the gag-reflex while consuming the annual plate of silage masquerading as cranberry sauce. 

Christmas is a time for ghosts, and not just the cranberry flavoured ones. It might be the empty chair at the table. It may be the memory of happier times. It could be a year of losses and regrets. But there is a darkness to Christmas that the fairy lights and tinsel can’t quite conceal. There’s a shadow under the Christmas tree that we’d rather not acknowledge.  

For some people the most difficult thing about Christmas is the requirement to spend time with family. It is one of the few times in the year we run the gauntlet of being thrown together for an extended period of time in a confined space with a bunch of people who may not be our first choice of company. We may have a common biology, or a common history, but we may not have much in common beyond that.  

Most Christmases are not haunted by the spooky ghosts that send a shiver down our spine. They’re more often harried by the mundane phantoms of broken promises, unsaid words, and the seething resentments that lie dormant in any group of people with a shared past. Sometimes there is one person we don’t want to be left alone with: the critical mother, the lying ex, the uncle who thinks the governments of the world are a front for a secret cabal of paedophile lizards. Whether they scare us, infuriate us, or bore us- we’d rather steer clear. It’s no wonder that for some of us, Christmas with family is not an appealing prospect.  

To hear some people talk in January, you’d think they’d gone to purgatory for Christmas. All the festive trappings leave them feeling, um… trapped. 

Trapped by the Christmas trappings

To hear some people describe the suffocating sense of confinement they feel when forced to spend time with their family is to be treated to a picture-perfect case study of learned helplessness. This psychological concept became famous following a series of distressing lab studies carried out in the mid-1960s. The experiments involved placing lab dogs in a cage with a wire mesh floor that could deliver painful electric shocks through their feet. For one set of animals the lid of the cage was open – as soon as the voltage was turned on, they leapt over the walls of the cage away from the pain. Other dogs received the same excruciating electrocution treatment, but for them the lid of the cage was closed – no matter how much they tried there was no escape.  

After this initial training, the dogs were then placed in the cage again, but this time the lid was open for all of them. The dogs who’d been trained in the open-lid cage, leaped out and away from the electric shock as they had done previously.  But – and this is the really distressing bit – the dogs who had previously experienced the inescapable pain of the closed-lid cage, failed to move a muscle. Even when they could escape, they didn’t. Freedom from electric shocks was only a short leap away, and yet they lay down and took the pain as if they could do nothing about it. It was a brutal experiment. Even those who conducted it have written about it since with a palpable air of embarrassment. But it birthed the concept of learned helplessness, the idea that we can be conditioned to act as if we can do nothing to change painful situations – even when we can. 

It probably seems a bit much to equate Christmas at home with being electrocuted like an imprisoned dog.  But to hear some people talk in January, you’d think they’d gone to purgatory for Christmas. All the festive trappings leave them feeling, um… trapped.  

 

Even the most dysfunctional families fail to keep it up and lapse into moments of hilarity, peace, or occasionally even love. 

Three thoughts to turn a drama into a crisis

The difference with human beings though, is that unlike dogs, our helplessness is not just conditioned, it is learned and maintained by the way we interpret the world around us. We are not trapped just by what happened in the past, but by how we view the present. There is an unholy trinity of thoughts that are guaranteed to turn the usual family drama into a crisis.   

First, take it personally. Instead of thinking your family (like most families) can be a bit weird and anyone would struggle to get on with them at times, convince yourself that their eccentricities say something really hideous about you. Spending time with these people makes you a worthless, useless, failure – or whatever other creative insights your inner critic has gift-wrapped for you this season.  

Second, make sure you ignore anything good. The thing about being human is that we can’t do anything perfectly. We’re not even very good at being bad. Even the most dysfunctional families fail to keep it up and lapse into moments of hilarity, peace, or occasionally even love. We can be quite good at ignoring these bits though.  

Third, imagine it’s going to last forever. It’s true all good things come to an end. But to be honest, all bad things come to an end too. Our least favourite Christmas gatherings may feel interminable, but they only get worse if we keep telling ourselves, we’re stuck in the land that time forgot.  

These are the three patterns of thought that, more than anything, induce a sense of brain-fogging ineffectiveness at the thought of joining the family at Christmas. If we find ourselves wishing we were somewhere else, or wishing everyone else was somewhere else, we’ve probably succumbed to the three attributions that make up learned helplessness. In more technical language, we see the challenges that confront us as personal, global, and stable. 

And speaking of stables… (yes, I really did just do that). 

When God got a family

Most contemporary scholars now agree that Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, at least not in the way we think of stables. It’s more likely that he and his family were accommodated in a single storey dwelling where the humans slept on a raised section and the animals on the ground. Apparently, it wasn’t even that unusual for a manger to make do as an improvised crib- a bit like those baby carriers that double up as a car seat.  

But putting aside the stables and the mangers for a moment, what we do celebrate at Christmas is the mysterious moment in history when God became human. Not the moment Jesus appeared as a human-being-in-general floating ethereally above the global population, but the moment God became a specific human being. Developmental psychologist Donald Winnicott once said: there is no such thing as baby. He meant that to be born is to be thrown into a context we did not choose for ourselves. We emerge into the world as the product of a complex biological and social network, in which we are embedded, and without which we would not survive. The family that is currently doing our head in, is the family without whom we would not have a head in the first place. So, when we sing sweet carols to the baby Jesus, we’re actually celebrating the moment God got a family. 

Even more than that, to have any family is to have, specifically, your family. To be human is to be specified. You are this person, in this body, in this place, at this time, in this culture, in this family… this Christmas. There is no other You available other than this. When learned helplessness gets the better of us, we can succumb to the illusion that we would have been better if we’d emerged from some other family, any other family. We can be so lost in the dream of the family we don’t have that we fail to see the family we do.  And in doing so, we deprive ourselves of the freedom and triumph that come when skilful adults respond to challenging situations.  

So, this Christmas how about trying on a few new beliefs for size? You belong to your family, but they don’t define you. They may be your history, but they don’t have to be your destiny. Your time with them won’t last forever, but you may regret it if you don’t make the most of it while it lasts. They may be painful, but there are still moments of goodness to be found in their company.   

In part two, we’ll think about just what those good things might be.  

Article
Change
Identity
1 min read

How to be (un)successful

Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?
A man sits cross legged in a park with a laptop on the grass in front of him. He looks to one side.
Malte Helmhold on Unsplash.

You probably want to be a success. 

That’s OK – it’s a very reasonable thing to desire.  

The questions ‘Am I successful?’ or ‘What is success?’ are deeply significant and to ask such questions is a normal part of the human experience. The yearning for a life of purpose, as elusive as it can seem, is felt acutely by the majority of those who have ever lived – certainly by more than might admit it. (Those feelings of inadequacy you experience may be more common than you think.) And now more than ever it is understandable that you may feel you are not particularly successful, or not successful enough. We are assaulted by a combination of capitalism and consumerism, social media and cancel culture, polarised ideologies and virtue signalling, topped off by the wounds of our parents passed down – all of which can amalgamate into producing some pretty angsty, pressure-driven people. 

It’s not just you; I’m pretty sure we all have a bit of a problem with success (the word itself is so subjective), and our idea of it can often be fuelled by wounds rather than vision, romanticised projections rather than reality. Because we are all somewhat flawed, any worldly contribution we try to make can get precariously entangled with a me-fixated narcissism on a fairly regular basis.  

Most of us know that being successful is not simply about money, looks, large numbers or power. That’s just a caricature to which very few reasonable people actually subscribe, right?  

Well, sure – at least on the surface. 

My social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. 

The thing is, despite seeing through it and being repelled by it in others (we see it’s all vanity, inch-deep), something in us longs for success on these terms. But much more interesting than skimming along the surface of ‘success’ is excavating deeper into some of the core motivating beliefs we humans have about ourselves, such as mistaken pride in thinking we each control our destiny, or paranoia that tells us there’s an inherent scarcity of everything in the world. These are the swell that carry along the undercurrent of comparison – where we see the lives of others and long for a different reality for ourselves. And comparison – so often eliciting either pride or despondency – rarely ends well.  

A cursory glance through the wisdom of online articles on the matter tells us millennials typically understand that material wealth isn’t the marker of success – there are enough old, sad, rich people to show that. Instead, success has now become synonymous with living a life that others want. Chase an experience. Go adventure. Wanderlust. #yolo. To succeed in life is to publicly consume as many unique experiences as you can during your short time on earth.  

I don’t know about you, but my social-media feeds are rammed full of early-to-mid-thirties enjoying a kind of spandex-clad transcendence. Success for today’s generation would seem to look a lot less like the overweight suit-clad city trader selling their soul to the system, making shedloads of cash to buy a slice of suburban real estate with a Porsche in the drive, and more like the lithe and mindful global citizen doing ‘life on my terms’. Think coastal living, yoga on a stand-up paddleboard in the morning, slaying the emails in your industrial co-working space, eating a superfood lunch, nailing a couple of zoom calls early evening before smashing some gua bao and margaritas with ‘your peeps’ at the latest pop-up restaurant before taking an Uber home. #squadgoals  

There’s no escaping the fact that technology has shrunk the world and as James Mumford notes, ‘global capitalism has brought so many different ways of life closer to us than ever before. We can see vividly a greater number of people who we want to be.’ This can bring up hidden feelings we thought we’d buried long ago.  

I often feel unfulfilled. Sometimes completely lost. For years I haven’t been able to admit that. Until fairly recently I would find myself looking at others and thinking: ‘Don’t they ever struggle with life’s big questions? Don’t they ever want to give up? Surely, I can’t be the only one sinking under the weight of comparison?’ Far from freeing me from my broken sense of self, the version of faith I was trying to live by was exacerbating the core wound I recognised in myself. That wound was a sense of feeling a failure, unsuccessful. And like an unwelcome parasite, it fed on comparison to others.  

Read any random couple of articles on ‘successful’ people talking about how ‘successful’ they are, and a lot of what’s conveyed is a profoundly angsty relationship with time: ‘You only have one shot at life’; ‘I don’t want to waste my time on earth’; ‘You can never get it back.’  

It’s as though we have an inherent recognition – and for some, dread – of the physical limits placed on us by virtue of being mortal and human. But what if unencumbered productivity, unceasing activity and unrelenting progress – however that is defined – are signs less of success than of self-centred insecurity? Could busyness really be the counterfeit of significance?  

It’s as if we have, left unchecked, an insatiable appetite for accomplishment. It’s not hard to see where this comes from. Paul Kingsnorth comments that: “Modern economies thrive by encouraging ever-increasing consumption of harmful junk, and our hyper-liberal culture encourages us to satiate any and all of our appetites in our pursuit of happiness. If that pursuit turns out to make us unhappy instead – well, that’s probably just because some limits remain un-busted.” He goes on to suggest that this is a fundamentally spiritual problem, because ‘a crisis of limits is a crisis of culture, and a crisis of culture is a crisis of spirit.’ 

So far so depressing? 

It needn’t be. 

Fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. 

Despite my continued struggle with all of the above, (neatly summarised by the inner critic’s voice asking me ‘what have you got to show for your life?’), I am beginning to learn that ‘life in its fullness’ (as Jesus once described what he came to offer) is found elsewhere. So, what does this look like and how do we successfully access this fullness of life? This quote can come across – and I’ve heard it used as such – like a marketing slogan, dangling a golden carrot in front of sad or vulnerable people to recruit them into church. Presumably that wasn’t what Jesus had in mind.  

Now there’s no denying the fact that Jesus was one of the most influential people who ever lived. Arguably THE most influential. Generally, even those who don’t follow him recognize that what he taught was pretty timeless. (Also evidenced by the 2.6 billion people today who are happy to be called Christian.) All of this suggests he had some fairly wise takes on how to live life well, and that his perspectives have stood the test of time. So, when he is recorded as teaching about how to discover what he described as ‘life in its fullness’, the chances are there is something valuable and insightful for those of us searching for success.  

The thing is, in this particular speech, Jesus conceptualized ‘life in its fullness’ as a shepherd who ‘lays down his life for the sheep’. Sure, he was talking about himself, but he was also talking more broadly about the human experience. Jesus’ point is that fullness of life – true success, if you like - is found in living to serve others above ourselves. This flies in the face of much conventional ‘self-help’ wisdom, but it would seem you cannot find true abundance any other way.  

We might well think: ‘Well hang on a minute, Jesus claimed to die for the sins of humanity – we can’t all do that!’ Absolutely right, and please don’t try. But in dying and raising to life again, Jesus foreshadowed the journey of surrender and rebirth that each person who chooses true success must go through. As C. S. Lewis said: ‘Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.’ This new life of serving others above ourselves – where we seek to align our desires, loves and motivations, our use of time and energy, words and actions with those of Jesus – comes to resemble the promise of life in its fullness. Discovering that would seem fairly successful wouldn’t it? 

 

How to be (UnSuccessful) is published by SPCK.