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Surviving Christmas
7 min read

Team Christmas and the three gifts of Christmas

How can we push past the stresses of the festive season to rediscover the magic? Roger Bretherton tells us how he learned to find joy in being on Team Christmas. Part 2 of Unwrapping God this Christmas.

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

An animated scene shows a man in a Christmas jumper and a child look around a corner into something and be delighted
Arthur Christmas, Roger Bretherton's doppelgänger.
Aardman Animations.

There is one job at Christmas I always forget I have to do. It’s the one where you get the Christmas tree home only to realise that, if it isn’t going to be dead of dehydration by Christmas Eve, some chump has to saw one inch off the bottom of it. In my mind there is another version of myself who is admirably skilled and handy at things like this. That Roger- let’s call him manly-Roger- has a neatly ordered garage full of power tools ready for any task, and a set of multi-sized saws hanging outlined by a perfect silhouette on the wall. Unfortunately, this Roger- let’s call him real-Roger- does not own that garage. To give you an idea of just how chaotic our garage is, the police once woke us up at 3am to tell us it had been broken into and trashed by burglars. When I joined them in my dressing gown to inspect the ‘crime scene’, it turned out the kids had left it open, and I was forced to confess that our garage always looks like that.  

So as the rest of the family disappear into the house, pinning up lights in a joyous cacophony of festive music, I’m swearing in the garage trying to find a saw. It’s usually completely inaccessible; wedged under a leaf blower, a bottle of windscreen fluid, and some discarded dumbbells which manly-Roger, were he to exist, might have actually used. Eventually I’ll emerge brandishing something completely ill-fitting for the task- some garden secateurs, a metal file, or a rusty axe, and I’ll then spend the next twenty minutes sweating over the base of the Christmas tree, thinking it all would have been much easier if real-Roger had bothered to pick up those dumbbells more than once this year. If a bad workman blames his tools, a truly abysmal workman has no clue what his tools even do. By the time I’ve finished clipping, hacking, and filing, the base of the tree looks not so much neatly sawn as gnawed-by-a-passing-beaver. I enter the house like a war hero flushed and dirtied from battle, defeatedly clutching the mangled tree. It requires every spare inch of inner resolve not to declare Christmas cancelled.  

When I was a kid Christmas seemed so much easier. It was something that just happened. The festive magic occurred as if by magic. It took me longer than it should have to realise that Christmas only happens because someone makes it happen- and when you have kids and family that someone, is you. Given my incompetence with Christmas trees then, it may come as a surprise to know that I’ve learned to love being part of Team Christmas, being part of the gang who are in on the act and can make the magic happen. (And not just because our teenage sons reckons I look like Arthur Christmas in our wedding photos.) I have learned that there is, just beneath the surface, a bone-deep satisfaction in the hard work of hosting Christmas at home. It has become a spiritual discipline for me, and I should probably explain why. 

We go into Christmas knowing that this year there is joy and beauty to be found in responding to other people’s demands. 

Ronald Rollheiser, in his book Domestic Monastery, tells the story of a monk who followed the call to prayer deep into the solitude of the Sahara Desert. His name was Carlo Caretto, and after all his spiritual exertions and mystical extremes, he reflected that he was still no holier, no more godly, no less selfish than the mother he had left at home. His view was that the very act of raising children and constantly responding to the needs of the household had shaped her, even more effectively than the desert winds, into the attentive caring presence he had come to know. Rollheiser extends this story to us all. In the monastery, life is ordered by the monastery bell. When it rings the monks turn to prayer. Whatever they are doing – eating, speaking, half-way through a sentence – they stop and turn their attention immediately to God. Rollheiser suggests that we view the demands and interruptions of home and work just like this, as the monastery bell inviting us to turn to whatever is demanded of us in that moment. In doing so, we find ourselves shaped, like Caretto’s mother, into a more gracious and attentive form. 

Christmas, more than any other time of year, has started to have a similar effect on me. When people need food or drink, when the presents need to be wrapped, when board games are needed for entertainment, when fresh air is needed to break the monotony, when someone needs to talk… I hear the sound of the monastery bell. The demands can be relentless, and easy to resent, but I have come to find some delight in willingly responding to them without a second thought.  

Psychologists have written something similar about the things that motivate us towards being at our best. Self Determination Theory for example, holds that there are three basic psychological needs to which we are all intrinsically drawn. They are the conditions for feeling that what we do was initiated by us and hasn’t been imposed by the tyranny of our circumstances.   

The first is autonomy. We have to feel on some level that we chose to do what we are currently doing. This is where the monastery bell can be so helpful at Christmas. We may not have chosen our families or the place of our birth, but we can choose how we respond to the obligations these things place upon us. As the guru of meaning, Viktor Frankl once said, we should not ask what the meaning of our lives is, because in the duties and demands of each day, life itself is constantly questioning us. Meaning is to be found in how we respond. Whether we are willing to do the things we have to do, as if we chose to do them. This is an intention we can set for ourselves long before the family rock up for Christmas dinner. We go into Christmas knowing that this year there is joy and beauty to be found in responding to other people’s demands. We only make ourselves miserable by imagining a world where we only ever call the shots and never have to serve them. Like the proverbial puppy, autonomy is not just for Christmas… it’s for life.

Some of our best memories of Christmas can be the conversations we had while cooking, or washing up, or serving drinks, or setting the table. If we find it difficult to ask for help, we may need to set up the request in advance. 

It’s all very well claiming our intention to serve the family at Christmas, but if we don’t brace ourselves for it, it’s liable to collapse with the first person to turn down our homemade cranberry sauce (it’s a long story- see Unwrapping God this Christmas Part 1). We can choose our duty, but we don’t have to choose it alone. This speaks to our second psychological need: relatedness. We want to connect with other people, to make contact and build relationships. Doing our duty at Christmas is great, but we need to watch out for that subtle moment when our delight at serving others morphs into stomping around wishing we didn’t have to. Often this is because we ignored the moment at which we probably should have asked for help. We start to feel alone in serving and, even worse, we start mentally rehearsing all the reasons why the rest of our family are useless wasters who never lift a finger.  

We need to be attentive to the pivot point at which our desire to serve turns into martyrdom, and not be seduced by the moral superiority of going it alone. If we can learn to ask those around us to help when we need it, we can create unanticipated times of connection. Some of our best memories of Christmas can be the conversations we had while cooking, or washing up, or serving drinks, or setting the table. If we find it difficult to ask for help, we may need to set up the request in advance. We let the family know that at some point during Christmas it will all feel a bit too much and we need them to be ready to help. In our house, at such times my other half has ‘permission to boss’. Given that she is more likely than me to be aware and stressed out by what needs to be done, she is free to point it out. And if, at times, that comes across a bit bossy, it’s no big deal- just Team Christmas working together to get things done.   

And, if the theory is right, getting things done is the third psychological need (alongside autonomy and relatedness) that motivates positive behaviour. We like to find outlets for our competence, our skills and abilities. To listen out for the monastery bell is to ask ourselves the question: what am I able to do in this moment that would contribute to hosting the family right now?  And for me, ultimately, that’s what makes the practice of Christmas a spiritual discipline. A few hundred years ago the Jesuit spiritual director, Jean-Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751), grew tired of convoluted esoteric paths to spiritual enlightenment. He preferred a much more down to earth approach. He wrote: the duty of every moment is a shadow that conceals the action of God. Sometimes we miss God because we are put off by the shadow that conceals the divine presence in everyday life. But when we approach the demands of the festive season, willing to give what we have, to whomever we can, we celebrate once again this Christmas, in our own small way, the coming of heaven to earth.  

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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.