Mind Matters — Bitter Sweet Beauty

“It was a dark and stormy night,” says the clichéd first line of Snoopy’s novel in the Peanuts cartoon. That also seems to be the first line of some of my clients recently when they arrive anytime after 4 pm. We are at the darkest point of the year right now as we lumber towards Solstice. Night comes early and the dark seems thick and low.

So it is also the time when we push against the dark with celebrations of light, whether Hannakah or Christmas or other feasts. There is a tension here between the opposites of light and dark that is best not to avoid.

As has been eloquently stated, “The beauty that will save the world is the love that shares the pain.” (Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, former Archbishop of Milan)

Last night I walked in beauty with Longwood Garden’s lights beckoning: A beauty of a bittersweet brokenness—The world is still not what it “should” be. Children are hurting; wars go on; our planet is in environmental crisis; grief and suffering are woven into the tapestry of our lives. And yet there is beauty that for a moment helps us transcend this strife. Remember in Dr. Zhivago when Zhivago and his family were hurled into a freight train full of strangers? The stench of people’s bodily functions in that cramped space was overwhelming; yet, when he gazed out a crack in the wall, Zhivago beheld the beauty of a snowy landscape and he took heart.

This season of sometimes superficial celebration can be especially difficult for individuals and families who are grieving the loss of a loved one. There are others whose pain is from the past, remembering childhood Christmases being marred by conflict and abuse. There are others who are stressed with lack of money or loss of a job. We are all bombarded by the advertising hype and the cultural mythology of a sentimental ideal of how Christmas “should” look. The perfect decorations, the right gifts, the proper attire.

Letting go of the should and expectations—ours or somebody else’s—may allow us to take in a glimpse of beauty wherever and whenever we can. It may be finding beauty in the smile of a friend, or in sighting a cardinal on a tree branch, or red winter berries framed against a grey sky. It may even be in the midst of spectacular Christmas decorations of a Longwood that we transcend some grief for a moment.

Yes, there are practical things I can suggest to those who struggle through this time of year.

Some of those pragmatic suggestions include lighting a candle for the loved ones you are grieving; setting a place at the holiday table for friends and family who have died; creating your own traditions that break away from traumatic memories; changing your traditions completely the first year after a loved one dies. Don’t attempt to make it just like it was because it never will be just like it was.

But beyond the common sense suggestions, we all need to remember to take heart, as Zhivago did, in discovering glimpses of beauty that are all around us.

I started by borrowing from Snoopy, so now I’ll take a verse from the musician/poet Leonard Cohen: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” By meeting the dark with eyes open, we await the light and find the beauty that sustains us.