Do the Holidays Beat You Up?

Thanksgiving beats us up. Christmas beats us up. “Happy New Year” beats us up. For many of us, holiday gatherings are not at all like the Norman Rockwell painting–the warm and happy multigenerational family gathered around the heavily laden table, smiling as they gaze at the golden roasted turkey being set down in the center of it all by the loving matriarch.

Even if we do a pretty good job of approximating that ideal, we experience the reality of what goes into it as much as we experience the moment when we sit down to eat. If you have a big extended family that comes together for a loud and crowded meal, you labor for days preparing the food. Or maybe you expend your energy packing and planning and traveling to and from. Or maybe your family is spread to the far corners of the world, and you work to manage the sadness of missing one part of your clan while you have the holiday gathering with the rest.

Or maybe loved ones have passed out of this life, and you have to work to mix the grief with the gratitude for those who are still here. Or maybe you don’t typically do the “family gathering” thing, and you’re part of a Friendsgiving feast or celebration and you work to appreciate that sometimes family is what you make, not what genetics has delivered. Or maybe you don’t favor the holidays at all, and you work to define your own idea of happiness and celebration against the backdrop of “the norm.”

Whatever it is, let’s admit it; in the back of our mind is the wish that life could be just like the Normal Rockwell painting.

Well, I call bullshit.

Why did Norman Rockwell paint that scene? My theory: he longed for the ideal that he created on canvas, and he was sad that he didn’t have it–any more than you or I do. It sure sounds as though his personal experience was not “that picture” at all. He and his first wife divorced after 14 years. His second wife’s alcohol problem forced the family to relocate from Arlington, Vermont to Stockbridge, Massachusetts where she received psychotherapy. Rockwell himself had several sessions with the same therapist to try to deal with his frequent states of deep depression. His second wife died in 1959. He eventually married a third time.

Ideal life? No. But look at the amazing world he created in his imagination–and, thanks to his incredible talent, in ours. He didn’t have a great reality, but he created a great dream.

Maybe your life is messy, troubled, punctuated by crises, not as successful as you hoped, heavy with regret, lonely. Maybe the holidays kind of suck. But I’ll bet that you’ve contributed something important and wonderful to the world. And I’ll bet that you love people who love you back–whoever and wherever they might be. 

Though it may not be pretty, that’s the essence of Rockwell’s Thanksgiving painting right there. I hope you see the beautiful painting inside your own life.

Happy Holidays.

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