Holidays are challenging times for many people. Rather than a storehouse of loving memories, for many of us holidays serve as annual reminders of the dysfunction and pain that characterized family life. As unique as the stories are between families, the feelings of loneliness, disappointment and worthlessness associated with a history of failed holidays is universal. I have spent much of my adult life breaking the ties to my past by building rituals around the holidays for my own family. Yet, I am still caught off guard, each time the holidays come around by the persistent small voice in me that continues to miss out on the fantasy of warm extended family gatherings and feeling twinges of envy for my friends whose families come together year after year.
Perhaps it is because of the bittersweet nature of my childhood holiday memories, but I have long been intrigued by the endings in life. Although my fascination with endings was probably initially sparked by fear and insecurity, I have come to value my need to ritualize endings as a gift, one that serves to continuously remind me to be grateful even in the face of difficult relationships. The truth about life for all of us is that things are continuously coming together and falling apart. When you pay attention, every day offers opportunities to acknowledge the endings that capture this flow of connecting and letting go. They are the turning points in life that are easy to miss, but have the power to create and carry heartfelt meaning in our days.
Feelings of gratitude are nothing if not a heartfelt experience. It has nothing to do with the formal politesse involved in routine exchanges. Real gratitude is a shortcut to heart opening that makes you want to return the kindness offered to you. Sharing our feelings of gratitude fertilizes and strengthens relationships; indeed it often builds connections where they did not before exist. Yet gratitude can and often does get confused with the feeling of indebtedness, of needing to pay back a favor that someone has rendered. The sense of obligation that goes with feeling indebted does not stimulate gratitude, in fact for many people it does the reverse; it closes the heart and breeds resentment. A lot of family holidays sadly degenerate to this place, missing the connection and love that erupts spontaneously from real gratitude.
Enter the gift of ritualizing the little endings in life. Awakening to the brevity and ethereal quality of relating even with the people who are difficult in our lives simultaneously connects to and softens the heart. We have had a lot of endings in the office of late. One of our former employees recently took her own life. As I go back over the last time we spoke I wonder did I tell her how grateful I was for what she brought to the work of spreading the message of love. Did she leave feeling appreciated? I won’t have the chance to ask her, but it makes me realize again, that treating our departures with the respect of gratitude is essential.
Using the ritual of endings to access feelings of gratitude provides a ready back door into your heart. Building the habit of expressing your appreciation for relationships, people, places or experiences as though it is the last chance you will have to say it will open your heart to the good things happening all around you.