The 2016 holiday season unfurled a little like how I imagine those encounter groups went in the 1970s – everyone getting empowered to air their uncensored feelings. So much honesty! So much raw emotion! Dan and I stood by like volunteers on a 1-800 hotline, taking shifts, soothing and empathizing and being available to the young callers.
The kids felt some disappointment about our Christmas festivities. When Rose opened, as one of her bigger presents, a beautiful, pristine winter jacket and said with breathtaking diplomacy and politeness, “Oh. This is Iris’ old jacket,” I realized we had failed to provide a spangly, America-approved Christmas. When Col tore the wrapping off his most toy-like gift, a 1,000-piece puzzle, you could almost hear the gong sounding in the distance.
This is no surprise, really. In the hierarchy of my time and resources, shopping and holiday decorating thud right to the bottom. Also, not having grown up celebrating Christmas, I admit, I’m still a little unclear on the concept. Kids make a list of what they want and we dutifully provide? We skip the list, surprising them with the toy of their dreams? We buy a pile of stuff no one needs because a man with pioneering kindness was born?
Even if the next new shiny thingy isn’t cherished in our house, empathy is. And bless them, the kids know this. Once Col understood that he wasn’t going to hurt our feelings, he told us about his jealousy imagining his friends’ big Lego sets and electronic devices; he shared his embarrassment thinking about reuniting with his cronies and having little more to report in Christmas dividends than a puzzle, a game and some long underwear.
Painful feelings need care. Being able to sit with discomfort rather than seek the quick fix of entertainment, sugar or some temporary hit of pleasure is a skill I want my children to get really good at. So we model this for them, allowing expression without judgment, providing understanding for their positions, letting their unpleasant feelings dry on the line of our support and presence. Col noticed that with no balm other than empathy, his feelings began to transform.
With empathy washing over the children’s brains, the encounter group switched to full-blown gratitude. (And back to disappointment ... and back again to gratitude, multiple times.) Col burrowed in close for snuggles, announcing how much he loved us. Rose made me and Dan a spontaneous card listing nine things she appreciated about us, including, “You are great at helping me and Col solve conflict,” “You play games, do puzzles and sword fight with us” and “You guys save money for fun trips and cool adventures.”
Behind the attraction toward quick hits of happiness is the deeper human need to belong, to connect, to be seen and heard. Much of the rest of our holiday was spent satisfying these needs. We sat on the couch, the kids leaning into me like two protective bulwarks as I read the Hobbit. We spent six completely absorbed hours putting Col’s 1,000-piece puzzle together. We celebrated Hanukkah in a frenzy of greased-up latkes with dear friends. We sledded and made soap with deer tallow. We hosted gatherings of Col and Rose’s buddies at our house, where we played board games, made art and food together.
Reach Rachel Turiel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her blog, 6512 and growing, on raising children, chickens and other messy, rewarding endeavors at 6,512 feet.