As the holiday season approaches, so does nostalgia. The word itself is blended from Greek and Homeric words, combining both "homecoming" and "ache." It's a sentimental, melancholy longing for the past.
Whether or not we genuinely long for the past, that nostalgic feeling is triggered by smell, music, and weather, so it's no wonder that this season transports us! Among all the ordinary, forgotten events of childhood and beyond, our repeated annual traditions have worn deep grooves in us, like the groove of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," which is playing somewhere right now whether you like it or not. (I'm currently playing it. I like it.)
Whether it's the clean, cold smell in the air on Thanksgiving day, the taste of turkey, or just too many hot spiked ciders, we can easily find ourselves in that holiday time machine that our brains have built for us. Oh what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open time machine, right? Sure, it can be!
But picture Scrooge beyond the windowpane, during his visit with the Angel of Christmas Past. We can't interact with our memories. Whether they're positive or negative, there they stand, out of reach yet sometimes holding tremendous emotional power over us in the present. When our minds journey to the unchangeable past, what judgments does it make?
Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now describes how, when thoughts are in the past, we either deem the past or the present to be better. Preferring the past can keep us from feeling at peace with the present: we want things back the way they were, and that's impossible. A painful past can also keep us from fully appreciating the present. Some of us "hate the holidays" because of the unfulfilled expectations and psychological injuries of childhood, formative years, or adulthood before dramatic changes like death, divorce, or disease. It's all what you make of it.
If you're like me, holiday memories are like most memories: a blend of happy and horrible. Now that I'm a grown-ass lady, I choose to take the good and leave the bad as much as possible. I'm cultivating the positive traditions that I want to create, like hosting a holiday party for friends. And, I'm making a special effort to focus on the present, and the positive, every day.
Meet my appreciation journal. Each night, I write down 3 things to be thankful for that day. I've been doing this for a month so far, and almost immediately, I noticed myself reframing my thoughts of the whole day around the good things that happened. This practice grounds me in the present, and it makes me feel wildly fortunate and thankful, which is a total mood enhancer.
Awareness of the present is the antidote to preoccupation with the past, and it can also cure melancholy. It works for both past-preferential and present-preferential nostalgics. Those terms sound real right? I invented them, but it's true. The cure for dwelling on how shitty everything used to be is realizing, well, it's not now! The cure for dwelling on how much more awesome everything used to be is realizing, well, lots of things are still awesome! It's hard not to feel more positive when you pause each night to think of the good things.
A surprise benefit of writing daily appreciations is realizing that even some difficult moments have a silver lining, and thus can be reframed into good things. That's called cognitive restructuring (an actual term) and it will help you move past negative thoughts and experiences. It challenges the black-or-white, irrational thinking that leads to pessimism and the belief that negative experiences are likely to repeat. Recognizing the abundance of positive experiences we have every day tells us, instead, that positive experiences are likely to repeat. The result is a happier, more optimistic, more confident you. Appreciation journals for the win.
Thanksgiving might not be perfect this year. Not for those who can't afford a special meal, maybe not for you and your crazy family, and maybe not for me and mine. Addiction is a disease my dad has, and he's recently relapsed after a few solid years of sobriety. This turn in his life, and in our relationship, breaks my particularly vulnerable holiday heart.
And although undeniably sad and stressful events like this one have often sucked me down the rabbit hole of similar holiday hurts -- all those unfulfilled expectations of how things ought to have been -- I now refuse to dwell on that. I recognize that doing so would draw my energy into a negative void. Instead, I choose to radiate joy and love toward the people in my life who, like me, are doing their best to live well and feel connected. This doesn't mean I forsake my dad: I hold a positive vision for his health and recovery.
Alongside any and all challenges, there is always someone or something to appreciate, and that's who and what deserves our attention most. Thank who there is to thank today, love who there is to love, and remember that one of those people is yourself. Happy Thanksgiving!