Spirituality and Mental Health: Renouncing Anti-Sleep Prejudice

The church of the São Pedro de Alcântara convent is decorated with azulejo panels depicting the life of the Spanish saint Pedro de Alcántara, born Juan de Garabito y Vilela de Sanabria (1499-1562). His extreme mysticism suggests a number of psychological pathologies, exacerbated by the practice of constant sleep deprivation. From Wikimedia Commons

How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from your sleep?
A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,
and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior.

(Proverbs 6:9-11)

It’s important to set the verse above in context: it follows an admonition about getting out of debt to a moneylender. It is not a condemnation of rest. Even so, there are frequent Proverbs about “laziness” being an obstacle to wealth, and there is a consistent anti-sleep prejudice in many religious works and traditions.

I think it’s important to set this kind of anti-sleep prejudice apart from the tradition of vigil-keeping and self-denial. Many observant Christians stay up all night for an Easter vigil, atoning for the way Jesus’s own disciples couldn’t stay awake to pray with him (Matthew 26:40). Occasional fasting from sleep isa form of spiritual discipline, and some forms of mystical sleep deprivation may be part of our spiritual growth.

What we have learned over the last few decades, though, is that “laziness” is not necessarily what it seems. Even procrastination and energy-conversation are not character flaws. They are often responses to trauma or indicate a brain dealing with a complex and contradictory set of goals. In fact, poverty and the fear of poverty are part of what create sleep problems. Worry about money keeps many of us awake! But in our capitalist society we often think it’s the other way around: laziness begets poverty.

Whether we see sleep as lazy or virtuous largely depends on our cultural frame of reference. In societies where afternoon naps are the norm, people often live longer and have a higher quality of life. Western white supremacy and colonialism has often described such siesta practices as lazy, but sleep science has shown that napping can boost creativity and well-being. A famous study of a Greek island that phased out its afternoon nap time saw rates of heart disease rocket upwards.

It is also important to remember that the Biblical proverbs about laziness were written 2000 years ago, way before the invention of the electric lightbulb. People likely slept much longer in pre-industrial agrarian societies. We have artificially lengthened the day with electric lights and glowing screens. While there is considerable debate about the best way to structure sleep (in one long chunk or divided into different cycles), it is hard to deny that many modern people are chronically sleep deprived, and that this deprivation compounds other mental and physical illnesses.

I think it is important for us to renounce anti-sleep prejudice for what it is: moralistic and colonizing. Regular, regenerative sleep is part of our incarnate life. All animals sleep in some way, and denying the importance of sleep is a way to deny our creatureliness. Theologically, anti-sleep prejudice is a misguided attempt to be God, to be “all-knowing and ever-present” by rejecting sleep, and it is driven by our fear of missing out and our fear of being unproductive.

For people whose identity is rooted in capitalism and doing, sleep represents a sin against our way of valuing human activity. We should take a page from Jesus, who had no problem simply being, and even took a nap in the back of a boat during a thunderstorm.

Prayer:
Forgive us, Creator of Sleep, for trying to be God.
Sing us a divine lullaby when we lay down our heads in peace.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: The Importance of Sleep

Sleeping Buddha, Oriental Gardens, Monte Palace Tropical Garden, Madeira, Portugal, by H. Zell, from Wikimedia Commons

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.

(Psalm 127:2)

I grew up hearing that our essential needs were water, food, shelter, and clothing. Research in the last decade has shown that sleep is just as important as these, and may be second only to water. Going without sleep will kill you faster than fasting from food.

Most of America is walking around chronically sleep deprived. Our sleep deficit shortens our lifespans, diminishes our creativity, makes us more susceptible to disease, reduces our emotional intelligence, increases the risks of depression, anxiety, dementia, and diabetes, and causes more traffic accidents than drunk driving.

Some Christian leaders of previous generations valorized going without sleep. A properly sanctified person, they argued, would only need four or five hours of rest. They believed too much sleep was a sign of laziness or sloth, one of the seven deadly sins. The urgency of saving souls or working for the kingdom was more important than sleep. Here is an excerpt from a sermon by John Wesley:

“I am fully convinced, by an observation continued for more than fifty years, that whatever may be done by extraordinary persons, or in some extraordinary cases (wherein persons have subsisted with very little sleep for some weeks, or even months,) a human body can scarce continue in health and vigour, without at least, six hours’ sleep in four-and-twenty.”

The consensus of sleep scientists is that an eight-hour sleep opportunity is ideal. Six is far too little. John Wesley concedes that when some of his contemporaries advocate three or four hours, they are being a little bit extreme.

I’d like to say we know better now, but capitalism and the Protestant work ethic continue to praise those who work late into the evening and into the next day. “Pulling an all-nighter” is a sign of dedication—even though the quality of our study and work gets worse the longer we go without sleep.

I believe sabbath rest is supposed to be a reminder of the importance of rest, not just once a week but every day. Nearly a third of our life is spent in this state of altered consciousness, when our brains store and rearrange information and regenerate their learning and feeling capacity. But like fussy infants, we refuse to sleep because we don’t understand the suffering we are inflicting on ourselves.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be drawing from Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, and sharing some reflections on the Bible and other religious texts.

Prayer:
Creator of Sleep, God of Sabbath Rest and Restorer of Life, help us to sleep well. Change our society into one that values the importance of sleep.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Critiquing Your Own Religiosity (Even if You Aren’t Religious)

Posthumous Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustine Monk by Lucas Cranach the Elder, from Wikimedia Commons

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
(Romans 12:3)

There is a tendency for religious people to get carried away with their religiosity. People have flogged themselves with whips or worn hair shirts to “mortify the flesh” (which is the way the ancient King James language renders Romans 8:13). Monks who fasted sometimes worried that if they swallowed their own saliva, God would hold it against them for breaking their fast.

Sex is one area where religious people get especially carried away. Religious people throughout history, tormented by the idea that sexual arousal or pleasure is sinful, have policed their thoughts for any hint of lust. If they let their eyes linger on a lingerie advertisement or nude painting, they feel they have violated Jesus’s words from the Sermon on the Mount: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29). They hear these words literally and spend their lives terrified of hellfire, though presumably it was God who created us as sexual beings and, perhaps through some oversight, established sex as the way human beings would reproduce.

People who sought out life in a monastery were often trying to escape their mental torment, but they found they could not escape themselves. The monk Martin Luther would go to confession multiple times a day. He couldn’t feel confident that he was truly sorry, or that his plea for forgiveness was genuine enough. He imagined God as a bright light that illuminated all of his sins. He had a spiritual conversion, though, when he realized that the light was not God: it was the devil. Martin came to understand that Jesus’ work had made his own sinfulness irrelevant—God loved him enough to forgive those sins. Why should he doubt God’s ability to forgive him, or that forgiveness require him to gin up some “real” guilty feelings? His personal conversion transformed not only his own theological thinking, but started the Protestant Reformation.

So it was that many monastics learned to be gentle with these zealous tendencies, because religiosity often masks deep wounds or insecurities. Wise monks wrote about the dangers of “heroic faith,” the tendency for us to try to impress God or win some kind of cosmic virtue contest. Roberta Bondi, telling stories of these ancient monastics, writes,

Beginners in the desert had to learn to be humble, that is, to abandon the heroic image of the self and learn to believe that all human beings, themselves included, were weak and vulnerable. They had to learn instead to take up appropriate tasks, and appropriate tasks for weak and vulnerable human beings are ones that can actually be performed… How much easier it is to daydream about the dramatic acts of love and self-sacrifice I or the church might make to prove our love of God or neighbor!

Bondi, To Love as God Loves, p. 47

An abbott of a monastery prescribed an unusual therapy for one of his monks who was worried about his own sinfulness: he told him to steal small things from his fellow monks. The abbott would then return the items at night. Today, we can see that this was a form of exposure therapy. The abbott was training the young monk to worry less about his sinfulness by prescribing theft.

The human tendency toward heroic moralism is not merely a religious one. I find the same sorts of guilt, doubt, and self-incrimination in activist and social justice circles. The language is often just as harsh and unforgiving. Sometimes it does rise to the level of mental health problem: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder expressed in religious terms is called scrupulosity, which Joseph Ciarrocchi explores in his book The Doubting Disease.

But even if our doubt and self-recrimination doesn’t rise to the level of a clinical disorder, it’s important to recognize that even God doesn’t want us to be too religious. Our job isn’t to become moral heroes. It’s more important for us to learn to be truly human in solidarity with all the other weak and vulnerable humans on this planet.

Prayer:
Author of Life, wherever our religion works against on your desired flourishing for all of creation, help us to humbly critique our own religiosity.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Protect Your Melon

A bike helmet, by Jef Poskanzer, from Wikimedia Commons

But Jael wife of Heber took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground—he was lying fast asleep from weariness—and he died. Then, as Barak came in pursuit of Sisera, Jael went out to meet him, and said to him, “Come, and I will show you the man whom you are seeking.” So he went into her tent; and there was Sisera lying dead, with the tent peg in his temple.
(Judges 4:21-22)

On TV, people are always getting knocked out. It isn’t uncommon for a main character to lose consciousness several episodes in a row, or even twice or more in one story. They lose consciousness by getting punched in the face, hit on back of the head, being too close to an explosion, or falling more than three times their body height. Most heroes in action shows are probably walking around with TBI—traumatic brain injury.

In real life, losing consciousness for any of these reasons would mean a visit to the emergency room. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show in which someone recovering from being knocked unconscious got adequate first aid. They just hop up, shake their heads, stagger a bit, and keep going. At the very least, they should be checked out to see if they are alert and oriented. The problem, of course, is that ER visits in the United States can take six hours (sometimes less in countries where there is universal health care), and by the time the patient gets discharged the nuclear codes would have already been stolen or the love interest would have been kidnapped.

This is probably why I’m not a screenwriter.

To protect your mental health, it is important to protect your physical health, and the most important physical piece of you to protect is your brain. Our fragile melons are balanced on top of our spindly necks, like bowls of jello resting on top of a spring. Violent shaking or rapid deceleration are not good for the contents.

This is why we wear helmets when doing construction, or riding a horse or bicycle, or going into combat. I once heard someone ask a cyclist why he wore a helmet, and he replied, “Because my head is where I keep all my favorite stuff.” Indeed, everything that is most important to us we keep in our heads: our hopes and dreams, our memories, our love, and the mental representation of the entire universe. My dad, who is a mental health counselor, has been saved more than once by a bike helmet. I take this stuff pretty seriously.

(There is some debate among cycling advocates about helmets, and whether or not helmet use creates a greater public perception that cycling is dangerous. Some research suggests that cars tend to give more space to cyclists who do not wear helmets, so wearing a helmet actually increases the risk you will be hit by a car. In an ideal America, we would have protected bike lanes and a robust cycling culture, like the Dutch, where cycling is a casual and accepted way to commute.)

There have been major advances in neuropsychology in recent years. We can even see the brain working with fMRI scans. This not only helps us understand TBI, dementia, and other forms of pathology, but also has a cultural impact: More parents are refusing to let their kids participate in football. One study in Arizona found that between 2015 and 2018, youth football participation had dropped by 25%. This mirrors that national decline more broadly. Some pediatricians point out that concussion is not a major problem among kids in contact sports, because they are lighter and have less momentum, but most recommend getting exercise some other way than football. I’m not a big football fan, but I do live in Alabama, and even I have some sadness that the sport will probably mirror the decline of boxing within a generation. Risking kids’ brains just isn’t worth it.

I think we can ask interesting philosophical questions about whether the brain is the same as the mind, and how we compose our sense of “self.” We discuss brain health and mental health most often when there is some kind of pathology, like dementia or chemical imbalances. But brain health should be important to everyone with a brain. One of the best ways to preserve our mental health is to protect our brains.

Prayer:
Thank you, God, for this amazing network of neurons. I don’t know where I’d be without it.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Starting Over (And Over)

The late leaves hanging on the plum tree, by cogdogblog, from Wikimedia Commons

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
(Isaiah 43:19)

One thing most spiritual traditions share is an openness to the possibility of starting over. We experience time as a succession of moments, and each one is new. This means we have the freedom to create and explore new possibilities in our lives. We can create new habits or extinguish old ones. We can change our lives. While nature, nurture, and the systems around us shape our behavior, we experience the freedom to create new behaviors and relationships.

This is one reason the New Year is a popular time to make resolutions. The first day of the year, or the school year, tends to be a hopeful time of change, and we can, in the language of yoga practice, “set an intention” to do something. When we set an intention, we are acknowledging the moment’s newness and possibility. It may be an action, or it may simply be a frame of mind. We are experiencing this. It is happening now.

Forgiveness is one such possibility. That’s an expression of interpersonal freedom. We can remake or transform our relationships. We can let old grudges go and start over.

In common discussion, we often speak about forgiveness and accountability, or forgiveness and ending a bad relationship, as if they were opposites. But they are not opposites. Both are expressions of the freedom we have to remake or transform how we relate to other people. I can let grudges go. I can also let abusive or toxic relationships go.

We can also extend this same grace to ourselves and our past behavior. Although we may make resolutions to change habits in the New Year, when we fail or don’t meet our goals, we get discouraged. But if I approach each moment as new, I am always free to start over.

My father likes to say, “If you start over often enough, you eventually begin to look consistent.” One way to change our behaviors and relationships is to see every moment as new, and the possibility of starting over as always before us.

Prayer:
Author of all things new, help me to see the newness of this day.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Spiritual Bypassing and Clergy Leadership

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
    saying, “Peace, peace,”
    when there is no peace.
(Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

“Spiritual bypassing” is a way of avoiding or repressing uncomfortable emotions. It’s using spirituality or spiritual practice to side-step hard internal work. While the term was coined by a Buddhist psychologist, it has become more widely used to describe ways that (usually white) folks retreat into religious or spiritual clichés when confronted with social analyses or interpersonal interactions that make them uncomfortable. As in, “we just need to love more” or “judge people by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.” These are fine words in context, but when used to sidestep hard issues, deny the lived experience of marginalized persons, or deny oppression, they become spiritual bypassing.

Lots of Trump-voting folks who are mortified by what happened yesterday are doing spiritual bypassing right now. It’s easier than reckoning with cognitive dissonance or simply being wrong.

Spiritual bypassing is the rhetorical ally to bothsiderism and generic complaints about the human condition. It provides an enabling smokescreen for privilege. It is behind most calls for “unity” without repentance or a change in power relations.

And spiritual bypassing it is regularly modeled by pastors and preachers who are reluctant to address issues of justice from the pulpit.

It is a hard and very fine line to walk when you are trying to hold a polarized community together (like the United Methodist Church), and I am glad that I have the freedom to be as plain-spoken as I want to be with my own congregation. But many leaders in our denomination could give a master class in spiritual bypassing.

It takes a personal toll. I suspect for clergy, it may even be form of “moral injury.” It leads to burn out. Like cheating on a test, the person who employs spiritual bypassing is denying themselves the opportunity to grow. But when you have to internalize it for a whole community, it hurts like hell. I’m afraid that a lot of our language about leadership for clergy normalizes this feeling. But we can resist and heal by naming it. It’s called spiritual bypassing.

Prayer:
Author of Peace, grant real us peace — peace with justice — personally and socially in our world.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Becoming Aware of Cues

Bellender Chocolate Labrador Retriever, 2016, by Wald-Burger8, from Wikimedia Commons

Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.
(Deuteronomy 6:6-7)

People had been training dogs for nearly ten thousand years before Ivan Pavlov described a “conditioned response.” He observed that if you ring a bell before you feed a dog, eventually the dog will associate the bell-ringing with getting fed and begin to salivate before the food even arrives. This is called “classical conditioning,” and it is one building-block of behavior change. We animals easily link one stimulus (a bell) with another (food) and it can cause us to respond, consciously or not, to our environment. When I hear the mail slot on our house open and close, I associate it with getting mail, and I feel a sense of curiosity. I’ll probably go check to see what the mail carrier has brought us. We call the sound a “cue” or a “trigger.”

The other building block is “operant conditioning.” If a rat pushes a level and receives some food, it learns that its behavior is linked to a reward. It is likely that when it is hungry, it will push the lever more.

These simple principles—classical and operant conditioning—are responsible for most of our daily behavior. I wake up in the morning and feel groggy, but the scent of freshly-ground coffee hits my nose and I start to crave it. Here’s the crazy part: I don’t even have to drink the coffee to feel more awake! I’ve been conditioned, like Pavlov’s dogs, to have a certain response to the scent of coffee. And through cues, repetition, and rewards over many days (wake up tired -> drink coffee -> feel refreshed) I’ve used operant conditioning to create a habit in my morning routine.

I think of this process in both behavioral and theological terms. The author of Deuteronomy in the passage above knew that it was not enough to say, “Keep these words in your heart.” The author added, “recite them when you lie down and when you rise.” They knew repetition was key to making something important in your life, and building into a morning and evening routine was the most certain way to give it priority.

We human beings are animals, and we learn things through repetition, by forming and strengthening the neural pathways along which electrochemical information moves. Ideas and experiences don’t just float around in the ether—they are embodied in proteins and neurotransmitters, incarnate in sound, smell, saliva, and morning routines.

This is why we don’t form or break habits through sheer willpower. I usually can’t simply decide to change my routine behaviors. I have to set up cues and rewards to train myself in that direction. For example, if I want to run in the morning, I may set out my running gear the night before. If I want to remember to set out my gear, I may need to create a reminder on my phone.

Or maybe my phone is the habit I’m trying to break. If I want to be less distracted and check my phone less often during the day, I may need to reduce the cues in my environment that cause me to reach for it when I’m bored or curious. If standing in line has become a cue to check my phone, perhaps I can carry a book with me when I know I’m going to be standing in line at the grocery store or the DMV. Part of this process is simply learning to recognize the cues that cause our automatic behaviors.

Becoming aware of our triggers and rewards is key to changing our habits. For all our lofty thoughts and goals, we humans are still animals. Our complex behavior is built on fairly simple principles.

Prayer:
God, may you be my first and last thought of the day.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Making New Year Resolutions “Sticky”

Photo of German mountain biker Kai Saaler in Finale Ligure, Italy, from Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Finale_Ligure_2018.jpg)

The appetite of the lazy craves, and gets nothing,
while the appetite of the diligent is richly supplied.

(Proverbs 13:4)

We generally don’t notice our habits. They happen so automatically that they barely register. They can be helpful or annoying, but our language reflects how strong they are: we talk about “breaking” bad habits, as if they were wood or stone. Our ability to create automatic behaviors is actually a superpower.

That’s one reason I think the scripture above can be misleading. A judgmental person will read it this way: “The world is made up of two kinds of people: the “lazy” and the “diligent.” If you work hard and have willpower, you can achieve your desires. But if you are lazy, you will be in want all the time.”

But this is a naive view of human behavior. Here’s the critical question: How does the author know? How does the author know the experience of a lazy person, and the strange feeling of wanting something, but not feeling strong enough do something about it? Paul was more introspective: “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19).

“Lazy” and “diligent” are character judgments. The words don’t actually describe what motivates people or how they change their automatic behaviors. Moreover, everyone has the experience of wanting something, but being frustrated at changing their own behavior to achieve it. “Lazy” is a word we apply when we are frustrated at someone’s behavior, whether that person is someone else or ourselves. We don’t generally change our behavior by simply gritting our teeth and applying willpower. I can shout “Be diligent!” at myself all day long and only succeed in shaming and demotivating myself. Unfortunately, this is often people’s experience with New Year Resolutions: they set goals for the things they want, but don’t consider the steps needed to achieve them. When they experience a setback, they become judgmental of themselves: “I just don’t have enough willpower.”

Most of us also have the experience of mastering some kind of automatic behavior, but these are easy to overlook once we’ve achieved them. After nearly fifty decades on the planet, I don’t have to exert “willpower” to brush my teeth—I just do it. I’ve mastered the complex set of behaviors involved in driving a car so well that I can daydream, or listen to an audiobook, or carry on a conversation with a passenger at the same time, all while paying attention to traffic patterns and following the relevant laws (usually). And though it took me a while to normalize only eating during an eight-hour window, I no longer have to think much about fasting. Habits fade into the background and we no longer notice them. If we took the time to make a list of our good habits, most of us would probably find we are very diligent about some things.

“Diligence,” then, is about becoming adept at creating good habits, programming ourselves for automatic behaviors that help us rather than hinder us. The processes for making New Year Resolutions that stick is the same for any goals we set for ourselves. I’ll look at these processes more in the next few devotionals.

Prayer:
We are fearfully and wonderfully made! Thank you, Creator of Life, for endowing me with the ability to program my own brain.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Faith and Narrative

Painting by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato

Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn
(Luke 2:4-7)

This is a hard Christmas for a number of reasons. We are simultaneously going through an economic recession, a pandemic, climate crisis, and an unstable political season. It is not unusual for us to experience a “Blue Christmas” during normal times, but this one is particularly fraught.

This is one reason why the Christmas narrative provides comfort. It tells the story of a turbulent, messy time: Mary delivers Jesus in a guest room away from home. The family has to flee as refugees and live for a time in exile. Re-telling the whole Christmas story from both Matthew and Luke (and not just the happy bits) reframes our own experience of an unpredictable world.

It’s also worth noting in the story that whenever supernatural beings show up to announce God’s activity, they start by saying, “Don’t be afraid” (Luke 1:13, 1:30, 2:10; Matthew 1:20). The message once again reframes the context: you are not alone. Though the world may be scary, there are divine beings in our corner.

“Reframing” is also a technique used in therapy, helping folks see a situation from a different perspective. I listened to one therapist do it this way: A woman said she had a tendency to date problem men, that she would initially be attracted to them but eventually find that they were emotionally immature or lazy. She wondered what was wrong with her. The therapist said, “It doesn’t sound like you have a problem picking men. It sounds like you are brave, that you know what you want, and that you would rather end a relationship than settle for misery. It sounds to me that you are actually very good at picking a partner. Have you ever thought of yourself as brave?”

Faith narratives help us reframe life problems in a similar way. We see in our own lives the same crises faced by epic heroes. The personal is often political, spiritual, and cosmic: our lives are echoes of the divine drama.

I said above that this reframing provides comfort, but it does more than that: it is a well of spiritual power and healing. This present crisis is revelatory, both personally and politically. It reveals relationships that are important and social problems that need to be fixed. It exposes hidden intentions and systemic failures. When we see our own stories as reflections of the divine story, we connect with a cause that is larger than ourselves. Reframing it this way helps us recognize our own power that we can exercise together. We may not feel brave, but we are making brave choices all the time.

Prayer:
Though we are afraid, Lord, give us courage in the midst of our fear. Reframe our stories in light of the cosmic narrative you are telling.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Staging Family Holidays

By Dietmar Rabich, from Wikimedia Commons

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—this is the first commandment with a promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.” And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord..
(Ephesians 6:1-4)

For most of us, when we think about how our family will spend holidays, we think about traditions, memories, and the kinds of experiences we want to share with loved ones. I remember gathering at my grandparents’ house for Christmas Eve. The kids would complain that dinner was taking way too long (because we were eager to get to the presents). We would be shuffled into the back bedroom for “Santa’s visit.” We would hear the sleigh bells ring, and then the adults would bring us back into the family room to see what Santa had delivered.

I say this as though it’s something that happened every year, but the reality is that it may have happened a handful of times. In my mind, it became iconic: this was what Christmas “should” be like. It was magical and exciting, and it’s the same kind of experience I wanted to share with loved ones.

I’ve just shared what this experience looked and felt like from the inside, as a participant. But if I view the same experience from the outside, as a sociologist or an alien from another planet, I look at it as a set of practices, rituals, and values. In research on families and holidays, sociologists talk about how family practices are “staged,” or how family is “done.” There is no “right way” to do Christmas or do family, but for participants who value the holiday, there are certain things we want to get out of it. We stage Christmas—we perform it. (And there are certainly practices and rituals we miss in this time of pandemic.)

The process of staging can lead to stress and fatigue. Every year preachers lament the commercialization of Christmas from the pulpit, and we tsk-tsk about missing “the true meaning of Christmas.” There are tropes in movies and TV about spending time with family we can barely stand. We are frustrated when the holiday doesn’t meet our expectations, and delighted when it delivers moments of meaning or spiritual insight.

Family conflict can intensify around holidays. When we are with family more, there are more opportunities for conflict, just as there are more opportunities for bonding. I think it can be helpful to think about how we “stage” family, and how we “perform” celebration of the holidays, and to acknowledge that logistical problems are simply part of this mix. Especially in a time of pandemic.

It can be useful to switch perspectives, viewing the holiday from both “inside” and “outside,” valuing the memories and experiences the holidays bring, but also seeing it as a set of practices and rituals that may or may not meet our expectations. I think if we are honest and explicit about our own expectations and disappointments, our own values and what we want to share with family, we can be more open to receiving whatever good experiences fall into our laps.

In the above scripture, I’m struck that the writer notes that “honoring father and mother” is the first of the ten commandments to come with a promise: “so that you will live long in the land.” The author points out that there is something about family bonding that creates stability and a good quality of life, and they quickly add that parents likewise have an obligation to children.

However you are staging Christmas this holiday season, I hope that you will be gentle with yourself and others. This COVID Christmas will not likely meet our expectations of Christmases past. But if we are able to release some of those expectations and acknowledge our disappointment, it may surprise us with gifts anyway.

Prayer:
Lord, hallow our days and let them truly be holy-days. Help us to find beauty and meaning in unexpected places, and give us memories of our beloveds that we will treasure.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.