keeping Christ in Christmas

A lot of criticism and disgust turns up around this time of year due to the commercialism that seems to have taken over Christmas.  Much of this is aimed at the many attempts to exclude Jesus and even the word “Christmas” from cards, letters, comments etc.  It also comes from ridiculous things like “Holiday Trees” and “Holiday Lights”.  It’s very easy to be annoyed with this type of behavior as it may seem that our holiday of celebrating Jesus’ birth is being taken away from us.

If that’s the case, how should we respond?  Do we really think that criticizing those responsible for this exclusion or being upset about this situation will bring Christ back into the picture?  Acting in this way takes Christ out of OUR Christmas as well, as we’re no longer focusing on him but on the behavior of others.  To me, the forces behind this secularization win an additional battle by bringing us down and frustrating us at a time when we’re called to be joyful, expectant and loving.

So, this year, instead of hearing “Happy Holidays” and being frustrated, smile and let Christ shine through you to that person so that you can be a living example for what He stood for and was here to teach us.  The more people living as Jesus calls us to live and loving others, the more representatives He will have showing the true Christmas spirit.

Think about it, it’s not our job to be offended on Jesus’ behalf.  He took much more verbal abuse and scorning during His passion than He takes now by his birthday being “taken over”, I’m sure He’s capable of handling it lovingly.  I would think that He would be more saddened by one of His followers being brought down by all of this than by a non-believer trying to join in the Holiday in their own secular way.  So smile, love, enjoy your friends and family and make Him proud through your actions and kindness.

enjoy the symphony of life

Let me start with a story:  Imagine you’re at a symphony.  The orchestra is playing the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard and you’re completely wrapped up in the moment.  Then you realize you might have left your car unlocked.  If you leave the symphony, you can’t re-enter until intermission, so you stay.  That nagging thought about your car won’t leave you alone, however, so you can no longer enjoy the music the same way nor can you resolve the issue with your car.

This is an illustration of life.  God’s creation and the love that is shared throughout our world is this symphony.  There are times where we’re completely absorbed in the present moment and we feel and experience that love and witness the beauty of His creation, His symphony.  Most of the time, however, one thing or another distracts us from enjoying life (just like the unlocked car in the above story).  Whatever pulls us from that enjoyment is an attachment and the presence of those attachments keep us from fully living our lives as God meant us to.

Look at everything Jesus tells us in scripture and you’ll see how true this is.  Take, for example, his comments about the birds and flowers not worrying about being cared for.  They don’t have any attachments and so they enjoy God’s love and creation uninhibited.  Our worries, cares and attachments prevent us from this same experience.

We’ve all heard that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter heaven.  Certainly Heaven does not look at our net worth when deciding who enters and who doesn’t (as there have been many Saints who were wealthy during their lives).  Instead, think of that “richness” as the quantity and vastness of our attachments.  It’s our own attachments that hold us back, just like our own sin that distances us from God (not the other way around).  Like with everything else, this is from our own choice, not punishment from God.  We need to detach ourselves from these “things” in order to fully receive God and His love.  In turn, that will prepare us for Heaven.  Without these attachments, we too will be able to pass through the eye of that needle.

(Note: as much as I’d like to take credit for this great story, I read it in “A Way to Love” by Fr. Anthony De Mello).

we are not our feelings

You might be thinking, that subject doesn’t quite make sense.  This is one of Father De Mello’s mantras that focuses on the concepts rather than the words and grammar.

Let me illustrate this one:  say you’re feeling depressed.  You’re likely to think (or say), “I am depressed”.  That’s not true, though.  You are not your depression.  You are much more than just that emotion.  Think of it this way, your every fiber of being and essence is not 100% depression.  In fact, it’s 0% depression.  Depression is a feeling that you happen to be experiencing at that particular time, but it does not identify who you are.  This holds true for any emotion.

You might be thinking, what does it matter?  Isn’t this just an issue of word choice?  No, it’s much more important than that.  When you identify with an emotion or feeling, particularly a negative one, you’ll hold on to it much longer than you need to because you’ve tied it to your identity, your essence.  If you detach yourself and your identify from this feeling, you can realize that this emotion is fleeting and will pass.  Just like a cloud passes through the sky (even the ones that last for days), your emotion will come and go.  Being detached will allow you to still be you while that “cloud” is present and when it passes.

Think of how this works when a positive emotion comes into play, for example: “joy”.  You might think that you are overjoyed when a great thing happens, but just like that “depression cloud” passes, so will your joy.  If you identify with that joy, you can expect quite a crash when the “joy cloud” departs as well.   If you detach yourself and your identity from this positive feeling, you can realize that this emotion can be enjoyed while it’s here but you won’t be sad or disappointed when it leaves.

Have I confused you yet?  Good!  Now you’re thinking and becoming awake!  The point of all this is to prevent the huge ups and downs that can come from our emotions.  Wouldn’t it be better if you can stay at a nice blissful, happy, state of being regardless of what gets thrown your way?  You’ll be much more prepared to take on anything in that state rather than being held at the mercy of your feelings.

the importance of language part 2

The other aspect of our language that I wanted to discuss occurs in the language we don’t often put a voice to…and that’s the language of our thoughts.  More specifically, our thoughts directed at or to ourselves.

I am one of the guilty ones here (as are many others) when it comes to being a harsh critic of myself.  At times this has helped me to improve in areas I’ve needed the criticism (and can’t get it from anyone but me), but most of the time it’s not necessary and brings me down further.

How much better would our lives be if we offered ourselves the same forgiveness we’re willing to offer to others?  If a friend or loved one makes a mistake, we will forgive them and move on without holding on to that “infraction”.  If we make a mistake or hurt a friend, they’ll do the same for us…but do we do that for ourselves?  Holding on to this guilt is a heavy burden that we don’t need once we’ve moved past that issue with those we’ve hurt.  We need to forgive ourselves, as well as truly accept forgiveness from others, and then move on!

the importance of language

I am a firm believer that the language we use (verbally or in our thoughts) greatly affects our beliefs, attitude and our character.  This certainly shows up in using profanity.  Growing up, as many teens and young adults do, I used quite a bit more profanity than I do now.  I can attest that when using that language (again, verbally or in thoughts) affected me internally and I’m sure it affected others around me as well.

Outside of profanity, though, I think the way we phrase our thoughts can affect our view of others quite significantly.  We all know that we are called to not judge others.  When we’re cut off while driving, however, and we say to ourselves “what a jerk!”, isn’t that placing a judgement on that person?  The problem with this is that we’re defining that person as a jerk.  They’re a person just like we are, but saying that “jerk” defines their being takes away their ability to be anything but that (to us).  This is all in our heads, but it affects how we view that person and probably affects the amount of forgiveness we’re willing to offer.

In that same instance, if we say to ourselves “that was rude”, we’ve judged the action and not the person.  That specific action can be judged and we’ve never been told that we can’t judge the actions of others.  In using this change in phrasing, we’ve spared this person from being judged a specific way and have left the door open for them to redeem themselves.

Jesus did not just say things to his disciples and followers without a very specific purpose that we need to pay close attention to.  In this case, by focusing on not judging that person, we can love them much more easily.  We have all heard the phrase, “Hate the sin, not the sinner”.  This is putting that into practice.

Think how much more important that language is when we’re talking directly to that person.  They’ll probably be a lot more defensive if you say that they ARE rude rather than saying an action of theirs was rude.  Put yourself in their shoes and you’ll easily see the difference.  If it’s directed at you, you’ll probably want their forgiveness for your action rather than being equally upset at them for having misjudged you, right?  We should offer the same consideration to everyone else by speaking more carefully.

We all (at least most of the time) say things without having fully thought them through beforehand.  Sure, some comments get more reflection before being blurted out than others, but most of the time we just go ahead and speak.  This is where awareness of ourselves comes into play.  We need to be aware of what we say (or are about to say) so that we can speak properly and phrase our statements in the most loving manner.  At first it will be a matter of looking back at our failings and working to get better, but before long we’ll be thinking these things through on the fly…and hurting far fewer feelings in the process!

not for pity

There was an interesting exchange between two characters on a recent episode of Flash Forward that highlights an important lesson for all of us.  Here’s a brief synopsis:  A man named Bryce has cancer, but hasn’t told his family or any of his friends because he doesn’t “want their pity” and because they’ve already been through too much.  A woman he’s telling this to (a psychiatrist) responds, “Telling them is not for their pity, but for their support.  At this time in your battle, you need all the support you can get.” (paraphrased).

How often do we hide our struggles and difficulties from others because of our pride?  Having someone’s pity is a very humbling place to be, so instead of taking that on, we hide our problems beneath the surface and act much stronger than we feel.  This seems so ridiculous when brought out into the open, yet we all do it (I am guilty of this quite often).

Another excuse we oftentimes make when not opening up to others about our problems is that we don’t think they can provide a solution…that it would just be  a waste of time.  The comments of that psychiatrist, however, prove this to be irrelevant.  Regardless of someone’s ability to tangibly help us through a problem, they can always support us.  That could be through encouragement, showing that they’ve got our backs, or through prayer.

Most of the time, we do this without even realizing it.  Our hesitance to share our problems with a loved one comes automatically.  That’s where our awareness of ourselves and our actions is especially important.  We probably won’t be able to correct this the first, second or even tenth time, but enough observation of what we do and when we do it could allow us to grow out of it down the road.

Reflecting at the end of the day is also very helpful as it allows us to detach from the emotions involved and think clearly about something that happened earlier in the day.  Doing that and being constantly aware of ourselves is the only way for us to grow out of this.  At a time when our world is making life difficult (either morally or financially), we could all use this type of growth.

focus on the plank

Another of my favorite passages of Jesus’ goes as follows:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

This ties in with my comments on loving others.  If we take our focus off the faults that we see in others, it makes it much easier to love them.  As Jesus also points out, our vision/perception of those faults are greatly altered and distorted by our own faults and prejudices (the plank in our eye).

Every single person sees the world (and therefore sees others) through their own “lenses” that they’ve built up over their lives.  These lenses are based on our prejudices, opinions, judgments, preconceptions, etc.   For example, if every policeman someone has met has been the one to pull them over and give them a ticket for speeding, their view of another policeman (call him Fred) would be negative.  Alternatively, a good driver who’s never been pulled over but has been helped by the police to find their lost purse would view Fred in a very positive light.  The same policeman (Fred) was viewed by both people, but their prejudices of policemen in general affect how he’s seen quite significantly.

This is what I think Jesus was referring to when he spoke of us removing the “plank” from our eye before helping our brother with his own faults.  If our view of the world is distorted, we’re in no shape to correct someone else’s view of the world.

So instead of focusing on fixing the faults or failings of others, we should focus on our own faults and failings.  If we do that, our lives will be an example to our brother who could then remove his “speck” on his own and without having that confrontation.

It’s like St. Francis of Assisi says, “preach the gospel and, when necessary, use words.”  So much more power is in leading by example and improving our own lives than in directing and correcting others.  There are some extreme examples where we’re supposed to speak out, of course, but most of the times this isn’t the case.

For your own reflection, think about one prejudice or tainted view you might have that affects how you see certain people.  Reflect on that and expose it (in your mind) and, after some time, it will probably drop away.  Also, be constantly aware of the inclination to correct someone else.  If it’s not important enough, keep it to yourself and remind yourself of that “plank” you’re working on.  It doesn’t hurt to offer a prayer for that person, of course!

a tree and it’s fruit

In Matthew 7, Jesus spoke about knowing a tree by its’ fruit.  To paraphrase, you can recognize whether a tree is good or bad by whether its’ fruit is (or brings about) good or bad.  This is an interesting test to put against many things in life.

Take what we eat, for example.  If we’re looking at our diet, we should be able to determine whether that diet is good or bad simply by observing the results.  If we’re feeling healthy and have a steady stream of energy, clearly it was a good diet.  Getting more specific, we can use that to temper habits of ours that could go either way.  Drinking caffeine or alcohol in moderation could be recognized as “good fruit”, however doing so in excess could clearly be seen as “bad fruit” based on all the negative consequences we would see (or premeditate).  The reflection on our choices is very important for us to remain “in tune”.

This test can be applied to many other things.  I’m fond of the Medjugorje story and all that’s been happening there, so let’s look at that.  If you are to focus on the fruits of what’s been happening there, clearly these events represent a “good tree”.  Countless conversions, vocations and miraculous healings have come about over the duration of these inexplicable events, all of which are clearly “good fruit”.  Whatever is behind these events, this is a “good tree”.

Anytime we’re faced with some difficult choices, project your thoughts towards the potential outcomes of each course of action.  Do you see more good fruit coming from one side than the other (or bad fruit)?  If so, you know your path.  Looking backwards, this can help us reflect on past decisions and decide whether we did the right thing or could have acted differently.  This is an important part of our self-observation as it will allow us to constantly improve in all areas of our lives.

While this may seem like simply placing a new label on a simple concept, I think this act of meditating on the fruits of a decision/action (whether it’s in the past or upcoming) is one that will allow each of us to be better versions of ourselves.  As with everything else I’ve discussed, it comes down to awareness, observation and the desire to improve.

feedback email

As you’re probably aware, this being a blog allows you to leave a comment.  I wanted to open things up a bit further than that and created an email account for feedback.  Here is that email:

lifeawakeblog@gmail.com

If you want to just comment on a specific post, you can do so by clicking “Leave a Comment” and all the world will see.  If you want to just comment to me, you can email me at that address.

I would also love to see questions come through or ideas/subjects that you’d like my own view on.  Not only does it give me more material to write about, but it allows me to connect with you on topics that are on your mind as well.

happiness

I saw a great Thomas Merton quote in the most unlikely of places yesterday (a credit union teller line):

“Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.”

I’m curious as to what others think of the “intensity” portion and what Merton meant by that, but this relates closely with my thoughts on happiness and why we don’t “have it”.  We’ve been brainwashed by our culture and media to think that happiness comes from someplace, something or someone.  What we fail to realize is that happiness is already there, inside us.  Happiness doesn’t need to be attained (nor can it be).  Instead, we need to get rid of all the junk in our lives that prevent us from experiencing that happiness.

Think of it this way, when your life is more balanced and everything is in harmony, you’re happy right?  That is another way of saying, nothing is in the way of you being happy.  You don’t buy that balance or harmony, it’s a way of life.  Happiness is a result of dropping things (like stress, worry, fear, etc.) rather than getting things (like a new car, hairstyle or money).

To prove this further, think of a person that, when you’re with them, you feel happy with.  When you’re hanging out with this person, you’re typically happy.  You’re not happy because the person is with you, you’re happy because their presence has motivated you to either drop those worries that prevent you from being happy.  They didn’t make you happy, you did!  Happiness is a choice (most of the time made subconsciously), so choose to drop those worries, fears and stress and enjoy the harmony and balance that remain with you.