“A compassionate attitude helps you communicate easily with fellow human beings. As a result, you make more genuine friends; the atmosphere is more positive, which gives you inner strength. This inner strength helps you voluntarily concern yourself with others, instead of just thinking about your own self. If one always thinks of oneself, one’s thinking becomes very narrow; even a small problem appears very significant and unbearable. When we think of others, our minds widen, and within that large space, even big personal problems may appear insignificant.” – The Dalai Lama
This morning, as I enjoyed a rare lie-in, I was having a flick through a magazine with a cup of tea. The features were almost exclusively related to Christmas, the pages filled with pretty sparkling lights, images of beautiful people looking happy and full of love, gift ideas that suggested cavernous sources of wealth, and models showing off expensive clothes, hanging from their tiny, waif-like frames.
Christmas has become, for many people, a bleak time of the year when their shortcomings are highlighted and they’re made to feel inadequate by all the representations of ‘normality’ that we’re bombarded with from the end of November onwards. We are all expected to be attending a glittering array of parties, dressed fabulously of course, looking slim and attractive; our presents demand to be wrapped stylishly and ahead of time; the menu planning obviously needs to be completed by October at the latest, with the intervening months being utilised for making the Christmas pudding, cake, and all manner of tasty accompaniments which can be stored in the freezer until the Big Day.
During the darkest years of my life, Christmas was my least favourite time of the year. It caused me to internalise everything I hated about my life. I ripped myself to shreds for not being good enough, for being divorced and failing to find the next ‘Love of my Life’, for not having ‘made something’ of myself, for drinking too much, for not being able to stop drinking when I started, for not being perfect, for not ‘having it all’.
And because I concentrated so much on my own (as I perceived them at the time) failings, I gave little outwardly to anyone else.
Yet if I had been able to find the motivation to invest my energy into others, it would have helped draw the attention away from my own problems. Compassion, as the Dalai Lama points out in the quote above, helps us to make bonds, and bonds make us feel worthwhile and more human. Community enriches the soul. And it doesn’t take much effort – you don’t need to race off down to the local homeless shelter and spend your entire Christmas there (although if you did you’d probably feel fulfilled). Simply smiling at people and saying hello as you pass on the street, or taking a Christmas card round to an elderly neighbour who might need the company and a reminder that someone is thinking of them, can have a hugely positive effect on your own mental state.
When we turn in on ourselves and forget to reach out to other people, we exacerbate the tendency to focus on the negative. Which, of course, makes it more tempting to drink. And when we drink, we internalize even more and find it virtually impossible to reach out to connect with other people. The endless push of ‘the perfect Christmas’ by those pursuing maximum sales is akin to a tidal wave – its force is relentless and it can easily (and, more often than not, does) overshadow the original meaning of the festive season.
So if you’re feeling the strain of this heavy weight of idealism, and if Christmas only serves to emphasise how bad you feel about yourself, and if the holidays always lead to excessive drinking to escape it all – take some time out. Look around you. See whom you could help. Try to focus your attention away from yourself and on to others. Compassion isn’t only about making other people happy; it serves to positively impact upon your own emotional wellbeing too.