Strung with baubles, soaring ceilingward and breathing strong pinesap perfume, the hotel's Christmas tree transfixes me. Then the magic shatters and I skulk away, feeling punished and shunned as if the tree itself was shouting, "Shoo!"
The winter holidays can be hard on those of us who struggle with low self-esteem. Because they're elaborately, deliberately beautiful, because they're heavy with holiness and happiness—JOY literally spelled in lights on city streets—these short days promise feasts and gifts. Their every glimmer kindles hope, which we find irresistible until our inner voices taunt: This merriment is meant for the deserving, not for you. Only good girls and boys get gifts and you are bad, bad, bad.
Joy to the world—with the sole exception of you.
The dark of the year grows darker still when self-loathing snuffs the light and love that are the symbols of this season and the very substance of spirituality.
We who believe that only miracles could fix us believe ourselves unworthy of miracles.
We who yearn for forgiveness will not give it.
It's not fair. But what about self-loathing is?
It's hard to feel blessed when you feel cursed. Prayer seems pointless when you believe no one cares. When we declare ourselves unlovable, those to whom we deny the right to love us include not just those who wish us "happy holidays" but also saviors, bodhisattvas, gods and saints.
And this is how we block our own access to sacredness.
But this season has so much sacredness, such bright light banked up against the chilly solsticial darkness, that maybe no one would notice if we borrowed a bit of that boisterous grace and bathed in it. Maybe some of these candles might melt the ice that imprisons our minds.
Self-loathing makes it hard to stoke the holiday spirit, but here are five practices that can help:
Write a wish list. Having been told too often that our desires are unimportant, inappropriate, excessive or otherwise wrong, many of us are afflicted with what I call "wantorexia," the false belief that we want nothing at all. Rekindling the spark of desire, allowing ourselves to want regardless of whether the items on our lists ever arrive wrapped and beribboned, is itself a gift.
Go natural. Because their magnificence puts humanity in perspective, natural places fast-track the wonder and awe that kickstart spirituality. I'm experiencing this right now, because I'm lucky enough to be writing this from Yosemite National Park, having traveled to this pines-and-ice paradise on public transit, via Amtrak and Yosemite Area Regional Tranportation System bus.
Let comfort and joy be contagious. This too I've learned at Yosemite, where at one of the Ahwanee Hotel's legendary Bracebridge Dinners I saw jerkined gymnasts and Tudor-gowned sopranos performing lush pageantry for formally clad guests in a grand, glowing hall. Singing "Silent Night" alongside teary-eyed, tuxedoed strangers, I could literally feel the warmth leaping from heart to heart.
Count your blessings. What makes you grateful? Shelter? Eyesight? Friends? The mere existence of oceans, art and toast? In other words, "open" the gifts that you already own but which low self-esteem has hidden, tainted or trashed.
Visualize sacredness as a directional force, like water pulsing through a hose. Rather than imagining a shower of glory raining down from some lofty realm onto the "deserving" flocks but not onto you, imagine goodness pouring outward from within you. Think nothing in there is good enough to share? Seek it. Find it. That's another gift.