It started a couple of weeks ago- I went to the mailbox and there was the familiar shaped envelope that signified it has begun- Tis the season…. for holiday photo cards. These cards have become a sometimes painful reminder that I am single during all of the jingle of the holidays.
Christmas cards hold a nostalgic place in my heart. I remember watching my parents write all of their yearly Christmas cards. I always thought, “man being an adult is a lot of work.” I also thought it was pretty great that each day during November and December Mom and Dad would go out to the mailbox and get news from all over the world. They would be able to catch up with their friends and distant family through the written word. Before Facebook, this was often the only time that we would hear from and catch up with beloved family members and friends. Without Facebook, correspondence was different and required a little more intentionality. Now, we seem to keep up with each other through Facebook statuses and twitter feeds, eliminating the need for the yearly letter.
There is a certain tempting nature to keeping in touch by reading people’s Facebook statuses. You get on there trying to find someone’s birth date or the correct way to spell their name (I am guilty of this one), and before you know it, you realize you’ve spent 30 minutes just reading status updates. There have been times when I have been completely lost in mindlessly reading updates. The problem is I really am “mindlessly” reading, and if you were to ask me what any of the statuses said, I would have no idea. Somehow I am capable of reading while scrolling and retaining nothing! There goes 30 minutes I can never get back. This type of mindless check-in has superceded the need to call and check in. Facebook and other social media have provided a window into other people’s lives that we haven’t always had.
Some of my friends still do a yearly holiday letter to catch people up on family events during the year, but most just send photo cards. They are all very creative and I really enjoy getting them. Some of my friends make epic non-traditional cards that require sets and costume changes. It is always a little impressive to see what the next card will contain. I collect the cards from the mail and display them either on my refrigerator or in my office. As I look at all of these photos and pictures of children playing, I feel two things. One is that my heart smiles as I look at all the adorable pictures of my friends and their families; and then there is another part of me that is trying desperately not to spiral into thinking ‘why isn’t that my story and how did I mess up?’ I love my friends’ children and I love photos of their families, but there is still a feeling of jealousy and comparison.
All holidays hold that kind of tension. Christmas is always awesome for me. I love preaching on Christmas Eve. There is something about preaching to a group of people who are ready to celebrate. We jokingly call these opportunities the super bowl for preachers. We get to preach to people who only come to church on Christmas and Easter. It is a chance to begin the process of having someone start their spiritual journey. It isn’t just about numbers and having churches that are fuller than usual, it is also about trying to reach people who are not yet committed to their faith. As you can imagine, crafting and delivering these messages takes a lot out of someone. From my position in front of the church in my robe (because Christmas is one of the times of year that I wear my robe), I feel like such an outsider. It is difficult to look out amongst the congregation and see everyone in their Christmas best and think they are all headed home to prepare for the next morning. I try hard not to feel bitter, but when I look around and all I see is people doing their best Norman Rockwell impersonation, my life as a singleton can seem out of place. I am the one who just delivered the message of Christmas, and as you go home to your families to enjoy your eggnog and family time, I am packing my suitcase to begin my trip home so that I can at least spend part of the holiday season with family. It can feel a little empty. It often feels like I am an outsider in my own life.
As a singleton pastor, the holidays are hard enough without all the smiling photo reminders that others have what looks like the perfect family. I remember reading a quote from a psychologist which said the problem with social media is that we often compare our inner lives to the outside lives of those around us. In fact, there is an epidemic of depression that stems from people feeling as though their lives don’t add up to the expectations they have because of what they see on Facebook and other social media outlets. They are going to add it to the “DSM”- the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders – the book used by all psychologists. It is official: there is now a “facebook syndrome.” I think they should add “Christmas photo card syndrome” to the list. No wonder I have to remind myself that as perfect as someone’s life looks, I can’t know what is happening on an internal level; and it also doesn’t have to do with me and my own life. As Theodore Roosevelt tells us, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I am guilty of allowing my own joy to be robbed. I can get so focused on my lack of a “card worthy” lifestyle that I miss out on the goodness that my life contains. So this year, I choose to look at all the greatness God has given me, and maybe one year I will get enough courage to make a card that features just that.