In Charles Dickens‘s classic festive story, A Christmas Carol (and in the Muppet version of same which is compulsory viewing in our house at this time of year), Scrooge is visited by the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. He is taken back through his childhood to understand the process of how he came to be the unpleasant miser that he is today; he gets to see what Christmas is like at the moment for the people in his life who he has never got to know or care about; and he reluctantly views what the future has in store if he fails to mend his ways: Dying alone with nobody to mourn him.
After these journeys, Scrooge is returned to the present day: Christmas day. He is so appreciative of being given another chance that he delights in everything that previously would have elicited a ‘bah, humbug’. I would argue that one thing we can take from the story – whether or not we celebrate Christmas ourselves – is the value of being present. In understanding ourselves, in really seeing other people for what they are, and in remembering the impermanence of life, we can return to the present more fully than before in a way that is better for ourselves and for others around us.
Holiday seasons, however, are often times at which we are least able, or encouraged, to be present.
Jamie Heckert argues that we generally spend a lot of our time either in the future or in the past. When we are in the future we try to predict how things will work out or to force them to fit a certain ideal that we have. We are not in the present because we are too busy thinking about the next step or overall goal. When we are in the past we focus on attempting to become ‘the person who has done that’. The present is just a means to the end of building up a set of perfect memories that we can look back upon.
During the holiday times this future/past way of being is often exacerbated. We may spend the build up to the period dreaming up hopes and expectations for how it will be. For me, this year, this meant clinging on to an idealised notion of days relaxing by the fire to get me through the last few weeks of work. In such ways we often fix upon the past (the rituals that we do every year which must happen identically for it to be a ‘good’ holiday) as well as the future (how great the holidays will be once we have finally done everything).
There are many problems with this. For a start such fixed ideas are difficult if the people we share the holidays with have different ideas. In my case, for example, it will be problematic if their ideal of the holidays (which has built up just as intensely) is of getting out in the snowy hills, or of seeing lots of friends and family. We may find ourselves in blazing rows with partners, friends or family members as both parties feel the other is ruining our perfect Christmas, New Year, or whatever. Incidentally I have found that labelling one’s loved one a ‘Grinch’ under such circumstances is a particularly unhelpful way to go.
Another problem is that this rigid way of approaching holidays is inflexible to change. If anything happens to disrupt the usual festive rituals or our idealised fantasy (such as illness, travel problems, or lack of money) we may find it hard to adjust and so either lash out or plunge into despair. There is intense pressure on particular days to go well, such that even minor set-backs such as burnt potatoes or a duplicated present can feel as though they have spoiled everything.
We can also spend the festive days themselves stuck in past or future. If we are stuck in the past we might find ourselves constantly comparing this event to previous years to determine how it measures up (which is likely to be unfavourable if we are comparing it to a time when we were just enjoying it rather than worrying about whether we were having a good time). If tough stuff happened at this time of year previously we often find that it haunts us, or if things were particularly wonderful previously (perhaps with an ex partner or friend) then that can be equally difficult. We can also be in the past in a memory-building kind of way, spending the whole day trying to engineer perfect moments like Bill Murray does in Groundhog Day, or constantly capturing everything on camera or documenting it on facebook or twitter (not that these things are bad per se, but if we spend our whole time thinking ‘this would make a great blog entry’ we’re probably not completely present to ourselves or to the people around us!)
If we spend such days stuck in the future we might keep thinking about all the stuff we have to fit into the day, planning it in so much detail that we never actually enjoy what we are doing at the time. We open the presents worrying about getting the meal ready on time, we eat the meal thinking about all the washing up we’ll have to do, we wash up concerned whether there’ll be time for a walk while it is light, etc. etc. Or we may focus on the longer term future: how many more days we have off before we have to go back to work, or whether we’ll all be able to get together like this again next year.
Of course the day on which many of us become exceptionally future-focused is New Year’s Eve as not only is there a heap of pressure to be having the most wonderful time when midnight rolls around, but we are also focused on all the things we plan to do to make ourselves better people in the coming year. New Years resolutions easily become a way of focusing on a future perfected self rather than the perfectly acceptable self that we are at the moment, as well as becoming another stick to beat ourselves with as we inevitably struggle to match up to the ideals that we have set for ourselves.
An alternative to such resolutions might be a commitment to aspire to something, with the gentleness and awareness to appreciate that we won’t manage it all the time and that this is not just another thing to be hard on ourselves about.
I’m suggesting here that something we might commit to over the festive season and beyond is to be present to ourselves and to other people: to gently bring ourselves back from past-ruminations and future-planning to the present moment, however it is. For example, we might realise that even if it is New Year’s Eve we’re actually feeling tired and antisocial and would rather not party tonight. We might see the thought that went into the gift we’ve been given even if it isn’t what we were hoping for. We might find perfection in an unexpected moment such as washing up with our siblings or curling up alone with a leftover sandwich.
This blog entry is dedicated to my brother who, years ago, infamously excused his not having bought anyone a gift by saying ‘my love is your present’. Of course a Christmas never now goes by without this line being trotted out at some point, much to his embarrassment. But he was actually onto something. To paraphrase his original words, whatever gifts we actually give to each other, perhaps we could keep in mind the idea that ‘the present is your present’.
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Being present is an idea which is common in Buddhist philosophies and the mindfulness therapies which are based on them. You can read more about this in my book Mindful Counselling & Psychotherapy.