“We turn up … every day pretending
We’re not neurotic and obsessed and insatiable and full of doubt.
And we waste so much energy keeping up
This mutual pretense for each other because we think if people saw
If people really knew appetites and self-loathing, then we’d get rejected.
But in fact, the opposite is true.”
~ from Manifesto by Jamie Catto
Ah, yes. It’s that time of year again. Thanksgiving is over and soon they will start arriving in my mailbox: holly-jolly holiday letters. Usually neatly tucked into a card with photos of my friends’ smiling, red-and-green-clad children, these chipper chronicles of accomplishment launch me into a state of unbecoming peevishness.
The reason for my ill temper in regards to these tales of unrelenting success and fulfillment is, of course, that they are happy hooey.
That sounds grouchy and grumpy and Grinchy, I grant you. I really am a proponent of positivity and an advocate of non-complaining, but every once in a while, I’ve just got to call a thing into question.
I expect that these narratives of all that’s bright and beautiful in the writer’s life are meant to connect, to include, and draw them closer to the recipients. My issue with holiday letters is that they accomplish the exact opposite of what they purport to do.
Even when couched in terms of gratitude and wonder, by sharing the awe-inspiring vacations, jaw-dropping job promotions, stellar academic achievements, and Herculean athletic feats with their friends and relations, they actually create more separation than connection.
Instead of drawing people together, one of two things happens:
(1) The reader either knows full-well that these happy successes are only half (or less) of the story and that plenty of other messy, difficult, crazy things also happened leaving the reader wondering how the writer and family really are,
(2) The reader forgets that life is full of everything and they think that the writer’s life is way WAY better than theirs leaving the reader feeling defeated or ashamed of their own messy, difficult, crazy life.
Either way, more peace on earth, more goodwill…not.
This reality cover-up happens not just with holiday letters, of course, but in cocktail conversation, on Facebook and Instagram, and even in good, old-fashioned email. Everybody puts on a show of happy, easeful success even though everybody knows that that is simply not the way human life rolls.
So how can I stay both positive and real when everything is not sugar plums and figgy pudding?
What if we took a more balanced approach? What if when asked about my holiday, I told more of the truth:
• I had a lovely time with the people who I was with AND I was missing someone terribly.
• I loved visiting with my family AND my feelings were hurt.
• I enjoyed preparing the meal AND it felt rushed and stressful.
Some people will get squirmy and uncomfortable. We aren’t trained to handle the whole story. Taking off the mask and shining the light in the shadows bucks the cultural system. But some people will be relieved. Some people will relax and say what’s true for them, too. Either way, it’s the only way I can think of to really connect to each other. It’s the only way to save ourselves from what my poet friend calls the “lonely mass hysteria” of isolation behind the mask of Everything’s-Great.
I don’t have to tell all. I don’t have to over-share. But I can make a step toward sharing both the light and the dark. Share your successes, yes please do, but also share your struggles. Tell about the joy, but also share the sadness.
Join me bucking the system. Tell the truth. Or more of the truth. Stay positive, but be real. If you write holiday letters, make it a real one and it will actually be a gift of comfort and joy.
In this of all seasons, pretending that the darkness isn’t there is just silly.