Paperback excerpt: The War on Thanksgiving

This blog post was originally posted December 1, 2016. Then it became part of my book, Dark Nights of the Soul. The holidays are upon us, so I’m posting this excerpt to remind folks not to forget to give thanks during the Christmas season. I want to encourage everyone to shop stores that are closed on Thanksgiving day.


Sometime in December, probably multiple times, I expect to hear about the “war on Christmas,” because someone said Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Has anyone noticed there has been an ongoing war on Thanksgiving?

I remember when stores would wait until after Thanksgiving to play Christmas music and put up Christmas decorations. Black Friday marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Now, it’s the day after Halloween. This year, on November 1, I was in a discount grocery store. It was sunny and almost 80 degrees outside, not even a hint of snowflakes, and I heard “Sleigh Bells” through the store speakers. I wanted to shout, “This is just wrong, people! It’s still more than three weeks until Thanksgiving!”

And a few years ago, stores started opening on Thanksgiving day. Really? You can’t wait until Black Friday for your big sale?

Good or Bad for Business?

A USA Today article showed the state of the debate from the business side. On one hand, there is the question about whether it makes business sense. Instead of resulting in more sales and profits, the numbers suggest Thanksgiving Day sales dilute the sales and purchases of Black Friday. So you are open on this holiday, but overall you are not making any more money. On the other hand, some believe being closed on Thanksgiving will soon be outdated. Most stores used to be closed on Sunday. Now shopping and running errands on Sunday is normal. Will the same thing happen with Thanksgiving?

“As long as shoppers want to make purchases on Thanksgiving, stores will continue to accommodate them,” one professor said.[1]

Either way, however, it comes down to a business decision. Retailers need to maximize the Christmas shopping season any way they can. If you don’t make it at Christmas, you don’t make it. I understand that. But do you have to make your employees sacrifice a major holiday and the last chance to spend meaningful time with their families before the Christmas rush?

Why Am I Talking about This on a Blog about Faith and Depression?

Because gratitude and giving thanks are powerful antidotes to depression and perhaps the most important (and underrated) acts of faith. Think about a time when you were truly grateful from the bottom of your heart. When gratitude overwhelmed you. Were you depressed then? Did it even occur to you that you could possibly be depressed at that moment? That’s what I mean about it being a powerful antidote. You can’t be depressed when you are truly thankful.

We have a day set aside to give thanks for our blessings and the blessings of this nation: the fourth Thursday of every November. And every year we ignore it, trivialize it, and treat it as a speed bump in our rush to get started shopping for Christmas. Black Friday is threatening to take over Thanksgiving altogether. Taking even one day out of the shopping season to stop, remember our blessings, share them with our families, and be thankful is treated as a waste of time, and even worse, a waste of money.

Isn’t that a perfect metaphor for our lives? We rush and rush to acquire more stuff and buy the love of our families and never stop to be grateful for what we already have. Sounds like the perfect recipe for depression.

So this year I am going to support Thanksgiving by doing my Christmas shopping only at stores that close on Thanksgiving Day. And I will wait until after Christmas before I shop any stores that were open on Thanksgiving. The only way this will change is if consumers prove to these companies that it really makes no business sense to try to make people shop when we should be giving thanks.

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.

-Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

Grace and peace to you.


[1] Josh Hafner, “To Open or Not? Inside Stores’ Thanksgiving Dilemma,” USA Today, October 19, 2016, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/nation-now/2016/10/19/open-not-retailers-wage-battle-thanksgiving/92380280/

The Holiday Blues

 

‘Tis that season when you hear “Joy to the World” and “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” everywhere you go. We think of the holidays as a joyful time, where we get to enjoy our families, food, and gifts. Yet for some, the holidays are a time of stress, sadness, and loneliness. Because of that, I’ve added this chapter on dealing with holiday depression.

Why are the holidays a depressing time for some people? Experts cite a number of reasons.

  • Stress. The parties, the get-togethers, the shopping, the decorating, yes, it’s all fun, but it’s stressful too. Normal irritations can become magnified during the holidays.
  • Pressure to be happy. When you see people around you happily saying “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” and stores are playing holiday music to get people in a shopping mood, you feel out of place if you cannot get into “the holiday spirit.”
  • Unrealistic expectations. Comparisons often lead to depression. If you are comparing this holiday to ones in the past, you’ll feel disappointed if this year does not measure up. If your neighbors appear cheerful and have it all together better than you do, remember at home behind closed doors, they are probably as stressed as you.
  • Doing too much. If just the thought of holidays brings stress and anxiety, it’s probably because you have done too much in the past. Maybe it’s time to scale back.
  • Neglecting self-care. If you meditate and exercise, you might be tempted to put that on hold because you feel pressed for time. You might not be getting enough sleep or taking time during the day to decompress.
  • Family strife. Spending time with family is the most important part of the holidays for most people. However, there might be some family you’d rather avoid.
  • Overindulging. If you have depression, WebMD recommends you avoid food and drink that makes your blood sugar spike. This includes most of the holiday treats we love. Sugar highs and the inevitable crashes afterwards are not a recipe for holiday cheer. And of course overindulging in alcohol will not help.
  • Isolation. Being apart from those you love never feels good. But during the holidays, you miss them even more. For those who have just moved to a new city, especially if they are single, they may not have made any friends where they are. They feel alone because they have no one to celebrate with.
  • Grieving. The first holiday after the loss of your spouse or parents or children can be rough. If most of your best holiday memories are with someone who can no longer be with you, the loss you feel will be magnified during the holidays.
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This is a condition where people become more depressed as the days get shorter. The holiday season, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, is timed perfectly for SAD.
  • Post-holiday letdown. You manage to get your fill of holiday cheer in spite of the stress, and then it’s over. Until next year at least. As stressful as it was, some people miss the activity, the busyness, the holiday cheer, and the people who have gone back home.
  • Overspending. Some people use “retail therapy” to cope with depression, and the holidays present every temptation to overspend. Buying those expensive gifts is a big hit with those you give to. Then the credit card bills arrive.

 

 

What you can do

 

  1. Set expectations low. The lower your expectations, the less you can be disappointed. Don’t expect everything to be perfect, and you won’t have a meltdown when it’s not.
  2. Plan ahead and Prioritize. Make a list of all the things you expect to do for the holidays, then prioritize. Schedule time for the most important things. If you don’t have time for everything on the list, some lower priority items have to go. Do you have to go to every party you’re invited to? Can someone else host the family Christmas party this year? Can you enlist friends and family to help with the preparations? Say no to a few things that are not high on the priority list. People will not be nearly as disappointed as you think.
  3. Set a budget. Know how much money you have to spend on each person before you start shopping. Don’t pressure yourself to buy the best and most expensive version. If you don’t trust yourself, bring a friend who will make you stick to your budget. The best gifts don’t have to cost anything. I honestly believe if I gave my wife a “coupon” for a free massage, she would like that better than a diamond necklace. Remember they want your presence more than your presents.
  4. Maintain healthy habits. Enjoy your treats, but remember to eat healthy, get enough sleep, and avoid overindulging. Keep up your exercise and meditation routines. If you don’t meditate, you should start. A few minutes of meditation can do wonders for stress. Whatever you normally do to de-stress, don’t forget to do it during the holidays.
  5. Manage family encounters. If you dread getting together with some family members, here are some options, listed in increasing severity.
  6. Set aside differences. Don’t get baited into those same old debates. If you argue with the same person every year, you already know what they are going to say. Resolve before you go in you will not waste any more time trying to set them straight. If they start, just say Merry Christmas, and talk to someone else. If there is some past slight you are still sore about, what better time to forgive than the holidays?
  7. Seek out the positive people. Instead of fretting over that relative who is always critical, think of the people you enjoy and seek them out. If you are busy with them, that means less time with negative people. You can ask the person arranging the seating to place you next to someone more supportive. Better to say, “Can you sit me next to this cousin?” than “Don’t sit me next to Aunt Martha.”
  8. Make an early exit. You can always make an appearance, and make sure those who need to see you do so. After a decent amount of time, you can say you have to go because of another commitment.
  9. Avoid certain people altogether. It is better for your mental health to forgive than to hold grudges. But if the pain is too raw, or if you know they are going to make you uncomfortable, then don’t go to the party or to their house unless you have to.
  10. Volunteer. Nothing is more in keeping with the season than helping someone in need. Volunteer at a homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or other community service. Helping others feels good and is often the best antidote for depression. You might even want to make it a new tradition.
  11. Community, Religious, or Social Events. Religious services have always been a part of my holiday tradition. With or without my family, I like being a part of them. If that is not your thing, look for other community and social events open to the public. They present low pressure opportunities to see old friends or meet new people with shared interests.
  12. Call friends and family. One year my sister was working as a missionary in Mexico. We celebrated Christmas as usual—me, my parents, and grandparents. In the afternoon, we used my iPad to call my sister on Skype. My grandparents were thrilled, not only to talk to her but to see her. It is easy these days to set up video chat online. Skype is still popular, though WhatsApp and Viber are more popular now. If you have an iPhone, Facetime is included. Bottom line, for your loved ones who are miles away, if you have a cell phone, tablet, or computer, you can contact them.
  13. Journal your feelings. I started keeping a journal in college. I journaled about things that happened to me, and how I felt about them. During bouts of depression, it was a lifeline for me. Which is why if you read my journals, you would probably think I was a basket case. But studies have shown that journaling your feelings, especially during times of grief or depression, helps people feel less depressed and less anxious. Darlene Mininni, author of The Emotional Toolkit, suggests writing for fifteen minutes three or four days in a row to start. If you don’t know what to write, you can prompt yourself by writing and answering questions like, “Why does this upset me?” or “What do I want to happen now?”
  14. Get counseling. If you can’t shake feelings of sadness, loneliness, or anxiety, it might be time to seek professional help. I’ve listed some websites where you can search for a counselor in your area (Appendix B). But first, you might want to read this guide on what to look for in a therapist. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/how-to-find-therapist#1
  15. Remember to be grateful. The holiday season starts with Thanksgiving. That’s a hint. Begin each day with just a minute or two to think of three things you are grateful for, and the rest of your day is likely to go better.
  16. Plan a post-holiday get-together. This is a way to ease any post-holiday letdown. Set a date to get together with a friend in mid or late January. This will give you something to look forward to after the holidays.

 

###

 

In my post called “The War on Thanksgiving,” I said this. “We rush and rush to acquire more stuff and buy the love of our families and never stop to be grateful for what we already have. Sounds like the perfect recipe for depression.”

The point I was trying to make is not to let commercialization take over the real meaning of the holidays. Sure, I buy gifts for whoever I’m spending Christmas with. I enjoy getting presents, but I also enjoy seeing their faces when they open a gift I gave them, especially when my niece and nephew are there. They are still young enough to approach Christmas morning with unbridled joy. Isn’t that what we really want from the holidays? To give and receive joy?

So whatever you do, whether it’s decorating, baking, making the holiday dinners, trimming the tree, eating with family and friends, shopping for gifts, making gifts, volunteering, attending religious services, whatever your traditions are, or if you think it’s time to start a new tradition, do it with the intent of spreading joy. That is the surest way I know to have a happy Thanksgiving, happy Chanukah, merry Christmas, happy Kwanzaa, happy Boxing Day, happy New Year and Dia de los Reyes. And a happy Festivus for the rest of us.

 

References

 

Kerr, M. Medically reviewed by Legg, T. J., Ph.D., PMHNP-BC. Holiday depression. Healthline Newsletter. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/holidays#1

Mann, D. Emotional survival guide for the holidays. WebMD. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/features/emotional-survival-guide-for-holidays#1

Mayo Clinic Staff. Stress, depression and the holidays: Tips for coping. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20047544

Minnini, D., PhD, MPH. (2006). The Emotional Toolkit. St. Martin’s Press. Available in libraries or at https://www.overdrive.com/media/1571599/the-emotional-toolkit

WebMD staff. Medically reviewed by Bhandari, S., MD. “Foods to avoid if you have anxiety or depression.” Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/ss/slideshow-avoid-foods-anxiety-depression

WebMD staff. Medically reviewed by Goldberg, J., MD. “Holiday depression and stress.” Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/depression/holiday-depression-stress#1

 

The War on Thanksgiving

 

Sometime in December, probably multiple times, I expect to hear about the “war on Christmas,” because someone said Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. Has anyone noticed there has been an ongoing war on Thanksgiving?

I remember when stores would wait until after Thanksgiving to play Christmas music, put up Christmas decorations, and Black Friday marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Now it’s the day after Halloween. This year, on November 1, I was in a discount grocery store, it was sunny and almost eighty degrees outside, not even a hint of snowflakes, and I heard “Sleigh Bells” through the store speakers. I wanted to shout, “This is just wrong, people! It’s still more than three weeks until Thanksgiving!”

 

Good or bad for business?

A USA Today article showed the state of the debate from the business side. On one hand, there is question about whether it makes business sense. Instead of resulting in more sales and profits, the numbers suggest Thanksgiving sales dilute the sales and purchases of Black Friday. So you are open on this holiday, but overall you are not making any more money. On the other hand, some believe being closed on Thanksgiving will soon be outdated. Most stores used to be closed on Sunday. Now shopping and running errands on Sunday is normal. Will the same thing happen with Thanksgiving?

“As long as shoppers want to make purchases on Thanksgiving, stores will continue to accommodate them,” one professor said.

Either way, however, it comes down to a business decision. Retailers need to maximize the Christmas shopping season any way they can. If you don’t make it at Christmas, you don’t make it. I understand that. But do you have to make your employees sacrifice a major holiday and the last chance to spend meaningful time with their families before the Christmas rush?

 

Why am I talking about this on a blog about faith and depression?

Because gratitude and giving thanks are powerful antidotes to depression and perhaps the most important (and underrated) acts of faith. Think about a time when you were truly grateful, from the bottom of your heart. When gratitude overwhelmed you. Were you depressed then? Did it even occur to you that you could possibly be depressed at that moment? That’s what I mean about it being a powerful antidote. You can’t be depressed when you are truly thankful.

We have a day set aside to give thanks for our blessings and the blessings of this nation: The fourth Thursday of every November. And every year we ignore it, trivialize it, and treat it as a speed bump in our rush to get started shopping for Christmas. Black Friday is threatening to take over Thanksgiving altogether. Taking even one day out of the shopping season to stop, remember our blessings, share them with our families, and be thankful is treated as a waste of time, and even worse, a waste of money. Isn’t that a perfect metaphor for our lives? We rush and rush to acquire more stuff and buy the love of our families and never stop to be grateful for what we already have. Sounds like the perfect recipe for depression.

So this year I am going to support Thanksgiving by doing my Christmas shopping only at stores that close on Thanksgiving Day. And I will wait until after Christmas before I shop any stores that were open on Thanksgiving. The only way this will change is if consumers prove to these companies that it really makes no business sense to try to make people shop when we should be giving thanks.

 

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.

-Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

 

Announcement

 

As a multi-passionate writer, I have many projects in the works. One of them is a book called The God Wrestler. Some of my most intense struggles with depression have been over issues of faith and religion. Each time I walked away feeling like Jacob when he wrestled the angel, limping, but I came through it in one piece. The angel pronounced this blessing on him.

 Gen 32:27-28 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”

28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Right now it is in the final stages of editing, making a cover, and everything that needs to be done to make it ready for publication. The book is the product of wrestling with God, the Bible, and my own demons of depression. (The demons are metaphorical, not literal). It is short, about 25,000 words. I could have made it a lot longer, but I thought people would be more likely to read a relatively short book. At this length, it says enough to make an impact but won’t be intimidating like War and Peace.

Because the holidays can be depressing to some people, I wanted to offer something to help. So I will post chapters specifically to address depression during the holidays.

Whether you struggle with depression or love someone who does, I pray something from this project will help you through the holidays and beyond. If what I went through helps anyone find happiness and meaning for their lives in spite of being depressed, it will all have been worth it.

Grace and Peace to you.

Thanksgiving for a long awaited wedding

Fran and I have been married for a month now. I wanted to post this on Thanksgiving. Because I have so many people I need to thank, I couldn’t get it done in time. But our one-month anniversary seems as good as anytime to recognize those who made our wedding possible. I’m not using names except where I think they may want publicity.

  • My grandparents, unfortunately, never got to meet her. They left a house that was paid for, and I was able to live in it. This allowed me to stay relatively close, so we could continue to see each other on weekends.
  • My parents, who supported my plan to stay in South Carolina, so I could see if this new relationship would go anywhere.
  • The ACFW writing group: We met there, writing was a big part of how we bonded, and others in the group have been very supportive of our relationship all along.
  • All my relatives and friends who showed up (or wanted to): You met her at family reunions and weddings and made her feel welcome.
  • Her parents: They received me graciously and gave their blessing.
  • Her relatives: including several who live nearby. If they had not approved of me, I know she would have had a lot of misgivings about getting married.
  • My Sunday School class: I knew church would be important in our lives. They became her friends as quickly as they had become mine.
  • My sister: for moral support and giving one of the best messages I’ve ever heard on 1 Cor 13/ 1 John 4:16-21.
  • My pastor: for conducting the ceremony and being a calm in the midst of the storm leading up to it.
  • My brother-in-law: for being the best man, for accepting what was probably the mildest “bachelor party” ever, and being totally cool with it.
  • To the bride’s son and brother for being ushers. I know your acceptance of me was crucial to her. And two who deserve special recognition:
  • A Purple Heart to the maid-of-honor: Broke her arm the day before. Would she let that stop her from being there on her BFF’s big day? If you think that, you don’t know her. Let a doctor put a cast on so she would not even miss the rehearsal dinner that night.
  • The Unsung Hero award to the friend who came to stay with the maid-of-honor in the emergency room (thus releasing Fran to get to the rehearsal), drove the maid-of-honor to the rehearsal dinner, and stayed overnight and through the wedding to drive her home.
  • To the bride’s great-nephews and great-nieces for being ushers and bridesmaids, and her 3-year-old great-niece for being the cutest flower girl ever.
  • To my own niece for being a bridesmaid, and my nephew for being ringbearer.
  • To her brother and sister-in-law for getting the decorations started and helping us clear them away the morning after, and to all the friends and family who helped behind the scenes. I know you did a lot more than I will ever know.

And for all the compliments we got on the ceremony, the venue, the music, and the food, here is who we all have to thank.

  • Music during the ceremony: Robert Parrish, classical guitar student at Anderson University, and Sylvia, vocalist/guitarist and friend from church and choir.
  • Music during the reception: Scott Smathers of Black Tie Entertainment.
  • Catering: Kellye Rainey and Sullivan’s Metropolitan Grill. The food tasted much more expensive than it actually was.
  • Venue: Shelby for making the entire space of the Bleckley Inn available from Friday to Sunday morning. It was the perfect package for ceremony, reception, and rooms to stay the night before and the night of, all in one.
  • The cake: a friend at Piedmont Tech who delivered a beautiful cake under less than ideal circumstances.
  • The dress: from David’s Bridal, and a friend who saved us a lot of money on alterations.
  • Men’s wardrobe: from Men’s Wearhouse.
  • Decorations: Event Rentals, Linda’s Florist, and items contributed by my bride and sister-in-law.

And most of all to my bride, who agreed to a big wedding and all the preparations and stress that came with it, when she would have been just as happy to get married in the courthouse and hold a reception at home sometime later.

And finally, I have to thank God. That may sound cliché, so I’ll explain why it’s not only right but necessary to say that. From the beginning, God said it is not good for man to be alone. When I was young and first started thinking about love, I had a hope of being married to a woman I could live happily with for the rest of my life, and who would be happy with me as well. I promised God I would be faithful to her always if He would bring her to me. When that didn’t happen, I grew frustrated and angry with God. I’ve always believed in being honest with God, so when I’m angry, I tell Him. God would comfort me, and I would be all right for a while. Eventually, I would get frustrated and angry again, God would comfort me again, and I would be all right for a while. This cycle kept repeating until I had had enough. I gave up completely.

“It will happen when you’re not expecting it,” people told me. How can I not expect it? Every time I met a woman I was attracted to and did not have a wedding ring, I wondered if she was the one. Should I talk to her? What do I say? If I don’t say anything to her, and she walks away, have I missed my chance? And when I did manage to say something, she wasn’t interested. “It is not good for man to be alone?” Apparently, God did not include me when He said that. I will be alone, but I will direct my energy into writing.

So when I went to a meeting of American Christian Fiction Writers in my town, I didn’t expect to meet someone. I was just going to learn about writing and network with other writers. But I happened to be placed in a critique session that included Fran. She shared the first chapter of a novel she was working on, and I found it and her intriguing. I don’t know how to talk to a beautiful woman, but I do know how to talk writing with another writer. I managed to convince her to meet me outside the group. When I finally got up the nerve to ask if she would go on a date with me, I could hardly believe it when she said yes. That was the beginning of the most beautiful relationship of my life.

And the funny thing is, we learned we had a number of connections through Abbeville before we ever met. She was born in Georgia, and her family moved to Abbeville when she was sixteen. My grandmother was born in Georgia, her family moved to Abbeville, and several of her brothers and sisters were born there. And as if that wasn’t enough, my sister met and married a man while living in Louisville, Kentucky. He has a brother named David who is married to a woman from Abbeville. How weird is that? What connection does Louisville have with Abbeville?

Our lives were connected in all these ways we never knew until we started seeing each other. And all the years I was angry at God, saying He let me down and had sentenced me to a life of being alone, God had begun connecting our lives together without our knowing it. And both of us can look back and see if we had met before we did, we would not have been ready for it. I thought I was ready long ago. But if you really want the right person to spend your life with, it’s not just about when you are ready personally. It is about when it’s the right time for the two of you to come together.

All of that was to say when I thank God, it is not because it’s what I’m supposed to say. It’s because I can see God was working all along to bring us together. It was not the way I would have done it. I wanted it to happen a lot faster. But just like when you plant an acorn because you want an oak tree, you don’t see the sprout growing beneath the ground. You can yell and scream and ask over and over again, where is the oak tree? You can give up and say the oak tree will never grow. You’ve waited and waited and waited, and nothing is happening. Oak trees are not God’s will for you, and you were a fool to believe they were. And all the while, the sprout keeps growing until one day it emerges. And it keeps growing, putting out branches and leaves, and eventually growing acorns that will grow into more oak trees. And then you realize from the moment you planted the acorn, that oak tree was already emerging.

I know everyone’s story is different. I don’t know any stories of soulmates finding each other that are quite like this. All I know is where she and I planted, God gave the increase. And that is why we are together now. As I said before, I believe in being honest with God. If I am honest in anger, I also need to be honest in praise and thanksgiving. I once thought I was a fool for believing I could have the kind of love my heart longed for. Now I know I was a fool for not believing. I can think of no words to express this whole experience with all its ups and downs except, Thank you.