Saturday, December 25, 2010

Alone on Christmas, and the Illusion of Time

Christmas has become the holiday most associated with the fear of being alone. Consider, for example, that one of the top Christmas songs again this year is the Waitresses song “Christmas Wrapping” (heard here in a newer version from Miranda Cosgrove). Lurking not far below the song’s hectic holiday surface are the threads, one in each verse, of a busy woman’s year-long fear of finding herself alone on Christmas.

For single people, the thought of spending Christmas alone is hardly unfounded. Over the last 40 years, the observance of Christmas has become so aggressively family-oriented that people who cannot get together with some semblance of a family on Christmas can hardly escape the feeling of being left out. Yet this experience of being alone and left out on Christmas is more universal than it might seem. The people who seem to be in the middle of the Christmas celebration may also be alone for half an hour, an hour, or several hours at a time. Some of us are cooking for hours. Or we find ourselves fussing over the assembly instructions for a new gadget, shoveling snow, looking for the right battery, setting up the fireplace, or making a late trip to the grocery store for an all-important but previously forgotten ingredient. Or we are left to entertain ourselves, watching television, checking the weather forecast, or even reading or writing blogs while other people tend to the essential holiday chores. (For my part, I spent more than half of Christmas Eve working by myself preparing karaoke tracks for Christmas Day.)

Logically, none of these situations, not even the scenario of spending an entire day alone, calls for a somber reflection on our existential aloneness. Yet more of us than will admit it will fall prey to this at some point during the day today. It is easy to imagine, if you are slaving away in the kitchen, that the people in the living room are the ones having fun. But if you are stuck in the living room while the real action is taking place in the kitchen, it is just as easy to feel left out.

In other words, if you feel alone on Christmas, you are not alone. The emotion involved is based on the thought of being the only person in a particular place, and this thought is more arbitrary than it seems in the moment. It draws on a series of illusions. If you want to get philosophical, try to prove that “place” and “separation” actually exist. But it is ideas about the nature of time that make feeling alone on Christmas particularly vexing. The idea as it relates to Christmas, of course, is that this is a “special” time, a day with more inherent meaning than other days.

That is a thought so abstract and so rooted in cultural assumptions that I won’t attempt to discuss it. But where, in general, does the value of time come from? The answer, perhaps a surprise to some, is that attention creates the value of time. Time has no value if no one is paying attention, if no one observes the passage of time or thinks about taking action or changing anything. It is almost as if the time does not exist. But time becomes a real thing as soon as you start to pay attention to it, and the more clarity, coherence, or passion is present in your point of view, the more value time has. If you are absolutely determined to get something done, and you know exactly how it will go, that’s when time becomes a precious commodity.

If you are stuck by yourself, feeling left out, not knowing what to do with yourself, it is a good time to practice paying attention. Just observe, then observe the way this process of observation “creates” time. Spend a minute observing your feelings and your immediate surroundings. Your breathing. Your posture. But then go on to look for things you want to change. Yes, it’s good to notice things that you like just the way they are, but don’t stop yourself from seeing the things that could be better, because that is what will lead you into action. Find any little thing you can improve, even something as little as putting a clean dish away in a cupboard. Observe your own action. Notice how this process changes the nature of time.

We are social creatures, but we are also workers. It is our nature to proceed by ourselves at times and to share our experiences with others at other times. We aren’t fully functional as humans if we aren’t doing both more or less continuously. And this is easier to manage if you don’t get hung up on the separation between one and the other. Fundamentally, they go together. You do things, then you show people some of the things you’ve done. The lag time that takes place between one and the other is not so important. The suspense inherent in this is the dynamic of Christmas gift-giving, of course. You have a gift for someone, but for a time, they don’t know what it is yet. Then they find out.

Beyond the ritual of exchanging gifts, nothing about Christmas can happen without all the individual tasks that take our attention away from the group, if only for a moment. Someone, we hope, can mash the potatoes, and someone can check the directions online, and so on.

The way this works is more obvious if you are off by yourself for only an hour, less obvious if you are alone for an entire day, or longer, but the dynamic is the same. If you practice observing the possibilities in your situation, you quickly realize that the whole holiday season is not nearly enough time to do all the things that people are waiting to see you do. If you happen to have a day free, it is valuable time, if you are paying attention. It is a time when you can do something that will surprise people, when they finally get to see the results.