Christmas — Filled with Fortune, Fraught with Guilt

🎶”It’s Christmas time.”🎵

The first line of a Christmas classic by charity music group ‘Band Aid 30’ rings through the car speakers. I fight the urge to change the station even though I know that dreaded verse is coming…

“And the Christmas bells that ring there, are the clanging chimes of doom.
Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you.”

And there it is. Like a swift kick to the gut my stomach sinks each time I hear that line, yet I always refrain from tuning it out because, as a whole, I love the message the song delivers though having always despised that one part.

What a cruel and un-Christmas-like thing to say? To suggest that we thank God that someone else is suffering instead of us? Who wrote this song anyway?

OK I get it. Maybe I’m taking it too literally as I’m sure the line was more intended to evoke gratitude rather than to imply that we should be relieved for the suffering of others, but I can’t help but think there’s a better choice of prose that doesn’t induce a massive black hole of guilt in the hearts of those that are fortunate but not-quite-fortunate-enough to be able to write a fat check that would solve a country’s hunger crisis for a year.

Guilt has been a frequent visitor in my own heart this holiday season and I attribute a lot of it to the internal awakening that just kind of happens when you become a mom. Not that I was previously blind to the blessings in my life, but experiencing this immense love that I never knew possible has given me so many more reasons to feel grateful, and renewed appreciation for things I may have often taken for granted before.

Where guilt rears it’s ugly head though, is on the underside of that gratitude, repeatedly taunting with words like tonight thank God it’s them instead of you, even though you don’t deserve this life any more than the next person so who do you think you are enjoying the holidays when there are starving people in this world and parents with children in the hospital and people who have recently lost loved ones and why aren’t you doing more to help those in need?

To which I may have a million jumbled replies like you’re right I don’t deserve this life there are far better people than I who have far less and who are experiencing pain and suffering for who knows what reason, and I do try to give back and do good deeds but it never feels like enough and I don’t know who I think I am so please leave me alone.

A guilt/gratitude tug-o’-war of the conscience where guilt always seems to end up on top.

I recently read a perspective essay titled ‘Why mothers need to stop calling themselves #blessed’. In it, the author shares her opinion on why the word “blessed” is overused and not an appropriate way of expressing gratitude or thanks for your good fortune. That it’s unintentionally hurtful to those who experience suffering or may not have been granted the same “blessings” as you. That it insinuates that we’ve been “chosen for joy” while others have been chosen for pain by a higher power.

And the worst part of it all is that while reading this kind of made me cringe, I completely understood her words and she made me rethink my use of the term in the future. However, she offers no better synonym as an alternative, nor does she describe a situation that might warrant its use.

For a mother who’s experienced child loss, would seeing a photo of a happy, thriving baby next to the word #thankful be any less devastating than one with #blessed? What about for a couple that’s struggling with infertility? Would #grateful under the photo of a beaming mom-to-be be any less painful? If a young teen awaiting adoption for ten years of his life finally found a family, would he be justified in his use of the word? And who decides who is and isn’t and where that line is drawn?

In a world where optimism is valued and encouraged, how do we innocently tout gratitude for the beauty in our lives while knowing that so many are not granted the same fortunes?

Think about the commercials this time of year for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital and March of Dimes and Catholic Charities. The ones that bring tears to our eyes as we see innocent, brave souls all desperately fighting for something. The feelings that arise are no accident. The imagery, the music, the scripts — all carefully curated to tug at our heartstrings, to remind us of how ‘blessed’ we are and compel us to reach out in some way but more often than not end up making us feel awful for not being able to do more.

Enter more guilt.

I have to keep asking myself though, if the guilt that keeps creeping up is really just a masked version of fear — fear that this divine power who’s been so gracious will eventually realize how undeserving I actually am and send my whole world as I know it spiraling out of control and crashing down. Because you see, I’ve been fortunate enough to have never endured true suffering. I’ve been on its precipice though, as many have. So close to the edge of the cliff that I can feel the sting of the burning fire, only to be mercifully pulled away just before plunging to the scorching depths.

They say that God never gives us more than we can handle. And in those instances it’s as if he was testing me to find my threshold, and as he watched me nearly crumble said to himself this chick can’t handle much more than this, I’ll save the fire for someone with thicker skin.

A colleague of mine once said something that’s always stuck with me. She said that in times of desperation and fear, or when she’s questioning why horrible things happen to good people, she reminds herself that this isn’t a Utopia and it’s not the world we were meant for. Meaning, that if you believe in God and heaven and hell then you understand and accept that this (life on this earth) is only an interim between the time before you were born and the time when you get to where you were meant to spend eternity, and so it cannot and should not be a conflict-free, pain-free paradise. That would defeat its purpose.

If I was even trying to find an answer in all of this at all, maybe that’s the key.

There are infinite degrees of suffering and joy on the spectrum of life that act as the checks and balances for good and evil, and our actions as human beings are what keeps that balance in flux.

Should we feel guilt for being ‘blessed’ and having good fortune?
Gratitude, yes, but guilt?
Probably not.

Or maybe in a way it’s what’s required for true empathy and a sense of worldly awareness. Maybe it’s only when gratitude sparks a match of guilt which lights a fire of fear that we feel a desperate responsibility to give back and to help others in whatever way we can, whether it’s feeding a small country, donating a toy to a child in need, or just lending a listening ear and hand to hold.

Not because we think that good deeds will simply grant us salvation or secure our prosperity, but because that fear has given us greater insight into the struggles of others.

Because The Golden Rule has so much deeper of a meaning than it did back when we thought it was as simple as don’t push Bobby, you wouldn’t want him to push you. Because Christmas is the perfect time to remind us that when we all do what little bit we can, we help give joy a fighting chance over pain. Because when hanging from a cliff on the verge of falling to ashes, we ALL pray for a hand to help pull us up and out of the flames.