Note: This is a blog with a “longer than recommended” word count. So, in case you need the short version, here’s the BLUF (bottom line up front): Want to know how to survive hard holidays? Do it together. 2020 has been hard, but together we discover and offer real hope to those around us.
Just before Thanksgiving my sister-in-law sent me a 2020 meme of a stylish woman wearing sunglasses, holding a glass of white wine. The caption read, “Military families watching everyone freak out at the thought of spending a holiday alone.”
I chuckled, but I also wanted to change the photo.
An accurate photo might include some of the following: messy bun hiding 5 days of dry shampoo and gym clothes, because she *might* exercise during the kids next Zoom class. (Or after lunch. Or right before making dinner. )
Barely visible in the selfie she snapped to capture the moment are the craft kits she helped prepare for the unit kids holiday party this weekend, and the thrift shop treasure she’s turning into a homemade ugly sweater for the holiday party with “FRAMILY” — friends who’ve become family.
Behind her, somewhere on the countertop or kitchen table are remnants of wrapping paper and packing tape. That pile of reused Amazon boxes will cost an obscene amount to ship to family across the country, but she’ll deal with that headache that tomorrow.
Most importantly, if you look closely, her smile doesn’t quite reach her eyes.
If you could see the seconds right after the photo, you’d see her wiping tears from her eyes as she coaches herself to be grateful.
She’ll rehearse how it could be worse – it has been worse – that family down the street has it worse – and she’ll give herself a pep talk about how next year, or the next assignment will be better.
That’s the photo I’d use.
Because if we’re honest, that’s how military families – those serving, and those who used to serve – do holidays. We’ve done hard so often we need to be reminded to give ourselves grace.
We deeply understand the heartbreak millions of Americans are experiencing this holiday season because knowing something is hard doesn’t make doing the hard thing any easier.
How to survive hard holidays: do it together.
This year, whether we’re military or civilian, we’re rolling into “the most wonderful time of the year,” worried that even our adjusted 2020 expectations will deliver yet another round of disappointment.
And if we’re honest, we’re not sure we can take any more disappointment.
We dare not whisper it out loud, but even those of us who tend to see the glass as perpetually “half full” aren’t sure our glasses have been refilled since 2019.
So, what do you do with the 12 Days of Christmas when your tank feels empty?
We can’t pour out what we haven’t received ourselves.
I’ll be honest, for much of the last few months, I’ve felt like I’m wandering around the desert – and not just because we moved to one.
I quit social media because it felt like staring at oasis after oasis of water I thought I needed most: friends, community, church, kids in school, playing soccer, and attending Nutcracker rehearsals.
Even smiles covered with masks still offered shades of “pre-pandemic” normalcy.
The contrast with my new surroundings felt unbearably stark.
The lure of social media is it allows us to feel connected despite geographic distance.
The lie of social media is it leads us to believing life is only good/better over there, for them.
For all that social media gives, we risk losing more.
I lost perspective and hope felt flimsy as a I began to doubt the goodness of the land to which we’ve been called, and the God who called us here.
How to survive hard holidays: do it together.
In our home we’ve begun to remind ourselves all the ways God has provided and protected us in this season.
He provided a path for this next chapter of our lives – opening a door for a good job with good people doing good work (even if it’s not a state I prefer.)
God protected our health as we logged 120+ days in temporary lodging and traversed 16 states during a global pandemic.
We’re taking turns speaking truth to weary hearts.
And while I hate that my girls have missed 6 months and counting of school, soccer, dance, and friendships, I’m beginning to glimpse what they have gained:
Last week we headed to the trail at a local park to walk/run for “PE.” We discovered that despite current restrictions by our state and local governments, two boys’ baseball teams scrimmaged while parents tailgated in the parking lot – with very few adults or children wearing masks.
As we started our walk on the path around the park, all the emotions erupted in my head and heart and spilled out my eyes.
Thankful for my sunglasses to hide my tears, I took a deep breath and told my girls, “I’m really upset right now. But not at you. I’m having a hard time finding my happy thoughts because I’m really angry at those people.”
In a moment when I had nothing left to give, my girls gave me the comfort I’d given them just the day before:
“It’s ok. We don’t like California right now, but aren’t we glad to be together? I’m glad we have a house and Daddy has a job.”
Though a more silent walk than usual, the few words spoken showed me how far we’ve come in this desert already.
And my girls’ encouragement reminded me, sometimes the truth we need most are the words we poured into others.
I know better than to trust my emotions. I’ve learned to stop the spiral in my mind before I’ve created an elaborate doomsday scenario and planned all the ways I can survive it.
For years the shift meant identifying the emotion and countering it with God’s truth.
Lately I’ve also asked myself, “When have I felt like this before?” or “Who have I talked to that felt like this? What did I say to her then?”
Recently I remembered a good Air Force friend who stood in my foyer at the end of a spouses’ holiday party, patiently waiting as I said goodbye to the next to last guest.
I knew she wanted to talk to me alone and silently prayed I had wisdom to offer, not platitudes.
She’d put on a brave face and participated in the hilarity of the gift exchange, stealing the good gifts, and groaning as the margarita mix and glasses ended up going home with someone else.
But her smile didn’t reach her eyes – and something about her posture reminded me of myself a few years prior when I rolled into Christmas on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Not long into our discussion, tears spilled down her face as she confessed:
“I’m not new at this – we’ve moved so many times. I know it takes awhile to feel settled into a new duty station, but I’m tired. I’ve done all the right things, but I just want to quit. Maybe this I just check out and wait for the next assignment. We’re probably only here a year or two anyway.”
Lately, the image of this dear friend’s face, streaked with tears, has been front and center in my mind.
“That’s how I feel,” I thought. Disappointed and discouraged. Doubting there’s any goodness to find, despairing any additional time of loneliness and isolation.
“What did I say to her?” I’ve asked myself more than once lately. “Whatever I said, that’s what I need now.”
Quite honestly, I think that’s what we ALL need now.
Military or civilian – living in our hometown or desperately trying to establish roots in a new desert – 2020 has left us battered and bruised, but those exposed cracks in our foundation prove we need more than new shutters, siding and paint.
Just like my friend needed more than platitudes as she cried in my foyer. I couldn’t offer her empty promises and I knew she didn’t want them.
There’s a fierceness about military spouses that I think serves us well in really challenging times.
(Like during a global pandemic, which is why the meme of watching civilians freak out about a holiday alone is somewhat accurate. We live with people who plan and train for World War 3 and the end times. Bring it 2020.)
But that same fierceness is what makes it so difficult to give (or receive) encouragement: platitudes elicit eye rolls and a pasted-on a smile to end the conversation.
We live in the uncomfortable space between hard and impossible.
“Normal” is sucking it up, stuffing the fear, planning the next dream for the military to crush, and preparing to rinse and repeat every 24-36 months.
We’ve got more t-shirts lauding those skills than necessary, so when the cracks appear, don’t give us a new one liner.
For the life of me, I can’t remember exactly what I told my friend in my foyer. She might, and she can correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it went something like this:
“This is hard. You’re doing a better job than you think. Don’t give up. Remember how God showed up and provided the last half-dozen times you’ve done this hard thing. God doesn’t change, even when the life we’re living changes.”
What I do remember, what brings me tears just writing about it, is the friendship I saw blossom for this gal the very next month.
She kept showing up, believing there was goodness to be found and she found it.
How to survive hard holidays: do it together.
If there’s a meme for military families teaching civilians how to survive the 2020 holidays, it looks like a worn-out spouse in flour-covered yoga pants, sporting a messy bun with 5 days of dry shampoo, carting reused Amazon boxes to the Pack ‘n’ Mail and donning an ugly sweater for a holiday party with friends who’ve become family.
But it sounds like this: “There is goodness, and joy and peace and light and hope. I know you can’t see it and you don’t feel it but keep showing up.”
Friends, whether we’re military or civilian, every single one of us can find ourselves in the story from my foyer.
We’re either praying for wisdom and searching for words or fighting the tears and looking for hope.
If this season is all about the birth of hope in flesh and blood, then we’re going to miss the peace and joy unless we realize how desperately we need each other.
The best lesson I ever learned as a military kid and military spouse is how to survive hard holidays: do it together.
Resist the urge to hunker down or hide. Don’t give up and don’t check out. Check in.
Take a moment to be honest:
Are you looking for hope? Risk the tears and admit you’re hurting. You might be surprised, like me, where you’ll find the encouragement you seek.
Who do you see that’s fighting tears? Whose smile doesn’t quite reach their eyes? Whisper a prayer for wisdom and reach out. Speak the words of truth you needed on your worst day. The memory you make might be the lifeline they need today and the one you’ll grab in the days ahead.
Don’t be afraid of discovering bumps and bruises or sharing scars.
This is the season we remember and declare the boldest truth: God’s Word ended centuries of silence, bringing light to the darkness and hope to a weary world.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that shas been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:1-5
PS: If you want to know how how to support or encourage military families read this. If you’d like to pray for military deployed during the holidays, here’s a resource you can use.