I woke up a few mornings ago to find myself in the center of the holiday season. I found count downs on every webpage I visited, heard carols at nearly every outing, watched the commercials filled with anxiety and pressure on television, and felt the palpable disorientation at Starbucks. The scurry and the bustle of the “Season of Joy” are definitely at hand, with all of the pressures and expectations that go along with it.
Many of us long for the perfect season, seasons of an older age when magic was real, anticipation was titillating, and peace ruled throughout each home and each land. We are told through a lot of advertising exactly how much that perfect season will cost, and how long we must stand in line to acquire it. We are told which holiday is the correct holiday to celebrate, which holiday might be acceptable to bring up, and which holidays are not to be mentioned. We are told that we are not only supposed to have elaborate decorations and elaborate meals, we are also supposed to have swarms of family and friends around us at all times, and that these waves of people will bring us good tidings and cheer and cause us to be ever-so thankful for the love in our lives, even when we are lonely and in pain and deeply hurt by those who would call us family. We are told that the holidays will bring up fond memories of days past, not memories of loss and disappointment. We are told that if we don’t have a festive and beautiful holiday season then there must be something wrong with us.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the holidays. I host a large Thanksgiving dinner at my home, complete with a gaggle of loud and messy children running around. I can’t wait to get the holiday tree up, the lights strung, and the decorations put out. I love holiday baking and gift-giving and extra time spent with loved ones. I had very happy holidays as a child, with a bounty of food, gifts, and family. I look forward to recreating many traditions each year with my children.
But the holidays are also filled with the pang of loved ones who are no longer with us, and the dread of family members who feel the need to impose all of their expectations and needs and wants onto me and my holiday plans. I scour the internet for lists of safe dinner and family gathering conversations for when the politics are different and the cider is spiked. I rehearse my speeches for clearly telling people that yes, it’s okay to swear around my children, but no, it’s not okay to tickle them or pick them up without their consent. I get ready for the pies to burn or the television to break or the schedule to be thrown out the window, and I try my best to let go of the things which I cannot control.
The holiday season is often a pressure cooker for our social interactions. Some irritations that would not be given a second glance are suddenly boiling to the top during the season. I am often reminded of the Ram Dass quote, “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” The people we love most often have a tendency to push all of our buttons and stand on every last nerve we have.
I was listening to the radio in the car last week, and during one particular show on which so very many things are considered, the hosts of the program were discussing the effects of dating apps and social media on the cultural expectations of friendships, family, and marriage. One host said that we are “living the lie of uncomplicated connection.” His argument, which struck me so deeply, was that people expect our interactions with each other to be simple and free of any uncomfortable moments. Don’t like someone? Swipe left. Don’t want to listen to someone? Un-friend them. Simple. Clear Cut, Customizable. Easy.
And false. If everyone had a Facebook page that said we are “In a Relationship” with Humanity, the relationship status would be “It’s Complicated.” Human beings have two common but separate needs – the need to be an individual and the need to be part of a group. These competing needs create tension within each of us and within systems that we create and participate in. Throw in a heaping scoop of cultural expectations around the holidays, and you basically have a recipe for a meltdown.
We want to be seen as individuals who have grown, changed, and accomplished so much. We want to be recognized for our hard-won integrity. We also want to feel a part of something much larger than ourselves, to know that we are dipping our hands into the continuously flowing river of life. In our families, we want to know that we are loved and accepted and cherished. In our congregations, we want much the same thing.
In our congregations, however, our Faith Tradition of Unitarian Universalism gives us wonderful tools for navigating the tensions between being an individual and being part of the group. These tools are our Covenants. They are the way we practice our religion.
There is probably no more important statement of identity than a congregation’s covenant. It tells people who you are, what you hold most important, and how you agree to be with one another. Our foundational covenant, the Covenant of the Seven Principles, clearly states the need to be separate individuals (We covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every human being) and to be part of something much larger (We covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part). The human condition is stated clearly in the First and Seventh Principles, and the tension between them is managed through the middle five Principles.
Our covenants are sacred and simple promises we make to one another about how we will be in the world. Bringing our covenants to life is both difficult and rewarding. It brings Unitarian Universalism and our values of hope, love, justice, courage, and joy into the world. It grows us as individuals as we learn how our own integrity calls us to manage these competing tensions, and it grows us as groups and congregations as it incarnates the Beloved Community.
Relying on your covenants can also be helpful to navigate these often treacherous waters of the holidays. We can ask ourselves, “What values do I want to incarnate in the world?” and “Is it possible to choose kindness in this interaction?” In these ways, our simple, deep promises with one another and the world can bring about great peace, no matter how small the effort. And after all, isn’t that the reason for the season?