NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

How to ‘cope’ with Christmas

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday...

I often get asked “How do I cope with Christmas”, which is weird, because it’s the most wonderful time of the year apparently.

But in all my years as a therapist it seems no day causes as much distress to people as Christmas Day.

Recently I’ve found myself increasingly less interested in thinking about how to “cope” with Christmas and much more interested in how to make the day more personally meaningful.

To me, despite the obvious and inherent contradiction, Christmas is a secular celebration. I’m not religious and so the day itself is not, for me, a religious celebration.

For me the core value of Christmas, regardless of what you believe about its history, is one of generosity.

Recently a friend posted on Facebook she felt sad and powerless, in the face of the growing humanitarian crisis in Syria.

What unfolded in response to her post was so ungenerous, so conflicted, she ended up deleting the post altogether.

There is increasingly a madness of selfishness that runs through our lives and our public conversations, personified, most horribly, by the president-elect of the United States.

Closer to home this madness is manifesting in its own way here in Aotearoa: in, for example, the growing inequality we see evident in our childhood poverty and homelessness rates, or the virulent opposition to allowing more Syrian refugees into our country. To some, what happens in Aleppo isn’t even our “business”.

It can seem like generosity is in short supply.

Getting, having, and holding on to our “way of life”, our culture, our point of view, has a price. Whenever we choose to not share it ultimately means there’s less to go around.

Which is also weird, because generosity is good for our mental health: it feels good to give; altruism is part of human nature.

There’s a tonne of research that shows that people who are more generous are healthier and suffer less anxiety and depression.

It doesn’t feel good to hate, and to hold on to anger. But it does feel safe.

That’s often why conflict in families is so understandable at this time of year: anger can feel like a way to protect ourselves from getting hurt again.

Generosity however is always a risk: no one likes to feel they gave the wrong gift, or see their generosity met with a lack of gratitude.

Doing what’s safe however doesn’t change things.

So at this time of year giving money to your favourite charity, donating food and presents to those in need, or taking time to be with difficult family members is, without question, both generous and to be encouraged.

But perhaps Christmas needs to be a celebration AND a reminder: that the world needs more generosity of spirit and action, not just one day a year but as a central focus in our day to day lives.

I believe we need it now, more than ever.

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