Real Sharing in a Season of Real Joy
Commercial advertisers would have us believe that the holiday season is just about cheerful fun. Family dinners are uncomplicated and there’s an abundance of food that everyone around the table likes to eat. Naturally, for people of faith, there’s a spiritual significance to the holy days of late autumn and early winter. Although spiritual meanings differ across religions, there is a practice common to many faiths that this is a season when gifts are shared and when family and friends share time over festive meals.
And yet, the reality of sharing our lives with each other is that relationships are complex. The holiday season seems to ramp up the complexity.
In 2017 NPR first ran a special series on how to survive uncomfortable conversations over holiday meals. The series was updated and ran again this year in 2018.
While it has been shown that suicides do not increase in the U.S. during the holidays, there is plenty of evidence that the pressures fueled by retailers of opulent gifts and the expectations of cheerful family life fueled by advertising agencies and churches alike only add to the anxiety and even sadness of the season. A quick internet search will offer many articles giving quick and “easy” lists on how to avoid such malaise.
My own experience of the holidays is that there can be real joy. However, that joy is necessarily rare, and fleeting, and is cultivated in the sowing and tending of many different seeds of experiences and emotions.
Real joy, I have come to experience, comes only with staying present with what is, instead of rushing away in fits of busy cheerfulness that primarily distract me from the complex reality of family relationships. That means staying with the pain, the mess, the fun, the sadness, the disappointments, the surprises, the giddiness, and the nostalgic memories. Joy only surfaces in the midst of sharing all of life, not just a happy sliver.
In The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (2016), the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu offer rich reflections on the depth that joy takes us. As the Dalai Lama noted, “[S]uffering is what makes you appreciate joy.” And as Archbishop Desmond Tutu concurred, “Sadness is in many ways the emotion that causes us to reach out to one another in support and solidarity.”
If we hope to experience real joy during this season, we would do best to prepare for real sharing with all its complexity.
This past year I unexpectedly experienced the complexity of joy when we opened our home to unexpected guests from the neighborhood. From March to August we shared our front porch with several different mourning dove families. What I learned was that sharing a home with others can be fun, remarkable, interesting, sad, crushing, and most of all filled with beauty and joy.
Each dove family was different and taught me important lessons, mostly in their patience and persistence. But one family taught me about joy in a most tender way.
This particular family arrived on our porch in mid-April.
Immediately, I noticed that there was something different about this family from the first brood who had nested a month earlier. Having observed one family so carefully, I presumed to know what to expect with our new guests. But all my expectations were misguided.
After a couple of weeks of patient waiting, watching as the parents took turns sitting on the eggs, one day I noticed a little bobbing head from the nest! Oh, ah a baby bird! This little bird was different from the babies I had spied on the month earlier. This one peeped often. And the parents offered back their mournful cooing. While the first family had been very active, but quiet, this family was less active and far more vocal. I listened carefully to all their vocalizations trying to understand their communications.
One day the cooing turned into an urgent commotion. I peeked out the door to discover the parents urging their baby to fly from the nest. One parent stood on the walkway, the other stood even further away, and both cooed persistently, urging their baby to fly. The baby paced back and forth on the ledge, not flapping its wings—just pacing. After pacing more, the babe turned around and went back to its nest, while its parents continued their pleading.
I had great confidence in the little bird and assumed it only needed fewer human observers to make its first flight. So, I used the back door the rest of the day.
That night, out of curiosity, I peeked out again, and was surprised and puzzled to see the parents had left, but the baby bird was in its nest. I fretted a bit that night, but still confident in the bird’s natural instincts, I thought, “Surely, it will be gone tomorrow.” But there it was still in the nest the morning. There had been a change, though. It was still. I worried that without the parent’s warmth overnight, it could have died.
I checked again that evening, and noticed the bird remained still and had now slumped down into the nest. That is when I a noticed dread creeping up in me.
The baby bird had died. The bird had died, and I was going to have to take care of it.
Despite years of hospice caregiving and offering rituals of cleansing of the deceased, I had never buried anything that had died. I dreaded the task. So, I procrastinated and planned to take care of things the next morning.
When I woke the next day, anxiety returned. I noticed its sensation in my stomach and I noticed the thoughts that fueled it: sadness over the bird’s death; apprehension over cleaning the nest area with all its filth from two months of bird activity…
Finally, I turned to prayer to slow my mind down and to practice mindfulness in the present moment. After praying for guidance from St. Francis, I noticed I wanted to ritualize the tasks at hand and lit incense.
Admittedly, my mind swirled in self-judgement about making this task a sacred ritual: “What if the neighbors noticed?” I wondered. Soon I dropped my concern and entered into a felt sense of consolation brought by the incense, candles and prayers.
Thus supported, I climbed the step ladder and lifted the nest off the ledge with the dustpan and took my first close-up look.
I let out an audible gasp and sigh.
In the nest was not just the little bird I had seen pacing back and forth on the ledge. In fact, there were two baby birds.
In that moment, a new understanding and meaning came to me. The baby bird had been unable or unwilling to leave its dead sibling alone in the nest. And so, it had been unable or unwilling to answer its parents’ persistent urging to fly.
I stood there looking at the birds in their nest for a good long while, taking it all in.
I saw in the birds a love and devotion that was so tender and compassionate, it took my breath away.
In time, I carried the nest with the birds to the back yard where the burning incense awaited. I looked for the parents, but didn’t see them, so went about my work as reverently as I could on my own. I realized I had to dig a bigger grave, and so knelt and used the spade to make room for the siblings.
As gently as I could, I placed the sibling birds side by side into the grave. After filling in the grave with dirt, I planted nasturtium seeds on top and watered the ground.
Only then, as I stood up, did I hear the distinct sound of two mourning doves fly away. The parents had been watching after all.
In that moment, I felt a complex of emotions that can only be described as joy. The sense of a profound connection with the wildlife who share this neighborhood welled up in me, as did a sense of wonder and even awe that I had shared in this experience with these unexpected guests in our home.
As I look on that plot in the back yard now, many months later, I notice the nasturtiums continuing to grow and bloom. Seeds planted elsewhere in the garden never flourished, but on the grave of the baby birds, the flowers remain hearty.
I learned so much from the dove families who lived with us: I learned that each family is different and distinct. I learned that there is a mightily strong bond between siblings in the wild, as there is a strong bond between parents and their young.
But what I learned from this particular family goes even deeper. Living in close proximity allowed us to share our lives in ways that were beautiful, messy, annoying, touching, and pleasing. We spent time that at least for me was filled with wonder, sadness, giddiness, eagerness, and happiness. In short, this Spring I experienced as a season of joy because it was all of that.
For this holiday season, I am already preparing myself for more joy to come. Family dynamics aren’t always easy, and cheerfulness is sometimes just a way to run away from the complexity of what is present. So, I am bracing myself with prayer and meditation, in the hope that I may stay present with all that is shared during these holy days. If I am lucky, there will be moments of real joy. And for this I am grateful.