The waiting is the hardest part. We never like to do it. Studies have been conducted that show people would rather self-inflect electric shock than endure a period of quiet waiting. A pause in the busy day is both deeply desired and feared because the actual act of waiting – what happens when we have an unplanned pause – feels like torture. It requires us to face the reality of what is, which is nearly never in our minds as wonderful as what we are waiting to come around the bend. Or, perhaps, it is the waiting on a terrible thing that makes the waiting so torturous. Our minds are consumed with thoughts of the Bad Thing to come. Specific inventions were created to distract us from waiting: mobile devices, the Internet, social media. However, one could argue that consumer culture itself exists as a method to avoid waiting.
This is no more evident in American culture than during the holiday season when consumer habits are amplified. The irony lies in the fact that it correlates with the Advent season, the waiting period before the ceremonial arrival of Jesus-as-baby into the physical world, apparently the “reason for the season.”
Recently I heard someone say that Charles Dickens had more influence over the Christmas holiday season than the Christian Bible. Before we begin to lament this reality as a problem, consider that it may not be a problem. What is wrong with a selfish heart turning outward to express the love that Jesus taught? Nothing. But to declare, “Jesus is the reason for the season” in the face of heightened consumerism, the proliferation of oversized men in red suits, or the strange cultural turn to “Jingle Bells” on demand, might only distracts us even further from the most important task at hand.
I propose that Jesus is not the reason for the season, but we are. Advent is not Christmas. Advent is the waiting period. Advent is the pause before the celebration. Advent is the act of preparation – finding a room at the inn, so to speak. Everyone who has the experience of waiting for the arrival of a baby – child, grandchild, niece or nephew, sister or brother, or friend – knows that the period before the baby actually arrives into the world is full of preparation, quiet, waiting and waiting, and restlessness. It is a time to check in to see if everything is in order to welcome new life. So while, yes, this period ultimately culminates with the baby, the focus is most directly on those who wait.
What do we do during the waiting period? When we wait we are confronted with the reality of time and must engage our current life situation, whether waiting for a baby or to check out at the grocery store. Many have a difficult time simply being in the moment and we reach for cell phones, newspapers, or we chat away with the person nearest to us, uneasy with silence. We believe our children also cannot handle waiting, handing the cell phone into their little hands before they know how to speak. In this same way, we engage the holiday flood of shopping opportunities, constant flow of high fidelity entertainment, and busy our schedules with family, friends, and church activities.
I do not mean that any of this is wrong. Spending time with loved ones, giving gifts from our hearts, and joyfully moving about our lives are wonderful ways to celebrate the season, but we must not forget that we are waiting. We must continue to prepare.
There is a reoccurring joke (with a heavy dose of truth contained in it) about how decorations make an appearance in our shopping centers and holiday music streams through loud-speaker radios earlier and earlier every year. Poor Thanksgiving! It really gets the short shrift. Halloween (another consumer-driven holiday) ends and – BAM! – it is time for Christmas! Cue the music! Get into “the holiday spirit.” Unfortunately, the holiday spirit is typically defined by outward expressions of joy: singing, gift giving, and smiles all around.
There is only so much energy one has to sustain the constant flow of exuberance expected of us. Even the most Christmas-y have moments of struggle as nerves wear thin, bank accounts droop, and smiles harden. It is time to remember and reengage the waiting period.
Perhaps we feel that turning inward is too selfish an act at a time when we are told to think more about those around us? This is a fair concern. However, new parents are often told to take time for themselves before the baby’s arrival. They must rejuvenate. Of course, it is odd to think of us “caring” for Jesus like Mary and Joseph, but there is an element of rejuvenation that is important in order to approach the next season of our lives. Consider the trees during the cold Win. An “inward turn” of dormancy allows for blooming, rebuilding, and transformation in the spring.
The waiting period does not need to be like staring into the abyss of quiet. It does not require confronting the dark corners of our mind – the fears, pains, and anxieties that dwell deeply there. Though, quieting our minds allows us to handle these emotions with greater ease. Sometimes we remark that this is a difficult time of year for some, but forget that many of us mask our own difficulties with bright colors and sounds, busy schedules, and shiny new treasures. Instead of ignoring it, we can guide our waiting with a few principles that make it a productive time in our lives:
- Establish a few minutes in the morning or evening (or both) to “check in” with yourself. Ask: How am I today? What is the state of my body/mind/emotions? Do this without placing judgement on the answer. Just take assessment.
- Say “no” to some of the more hectic activities and use the time to enjoy a peaceful activity: reading, writing in a journal, sitting quietly, write letters, listen to peaceful music, eat a meal with your immediate family at the table, bake cookies. Any quiet, comforting thing you like will do the trick!
- Learn to meditate
- Practice yoga or some other mindful activity.
- Go for a walk by yourself without music or the radio. Listen to the sounds around you. Pay attention to what it feels like for your feet to touch the ground.
- Hygge (Here’s an article in the New Yorker to explain it to you.)
- Enjoy an Advent book or any other daily reflection/meditation text. Consider something by a writer or theologian you normally do not read in order to bring a new perspective to your life.
- Read a favorite novel or writer that uplifts your spirit. (I enjoy books about nature by Terry Tempest Williams, for instance.)
Basically, do anything that allows your mind, body, and spirit to enter a place of rest in the midst of constant movement and busyness. We still have a few days before the official Christmas season begins. Take time to prepare your heart for the celebration.