The winter holiday season in American can be a gluttonous, slobbering, insatiable beast, feeding off of images of desirable privilege and spewing forth messages of love and happiness as codified by wealth, gain, dollars spent, and the virtue of obtaining the newest gadget simply because it’s new. Oddly enough, my favorite time of year is also one of the ugliest times of year. (Yes, I can, indeed, take the fun out of anything.)
There are few times other than the Christmas holiday season that make me shudder as deeply with the awareness of how privileged I am and an awareness of how that privilege can so easily morph into my uglier character traits.
I have wonderfully generous in-laws. My husband is incredibly generous. We make enough money to be able to buy decently nice gifts for each other. We live in a place that is warm and happy year-round. We both have jobs where we can take off Christmas Day and additional days around it. We are able to spend the holidays together.
Not everyone is so lucky. And I deeply believe that is an injustice I should work my entire life to fix.
The more I think about the issues facing the world and the issues facing our communities (during the holidays and beyond), the more I think the solution will be found in radical humility and radical self-sacrifice.
An easy starting place for me is redirecting where I’m putting my extra money during this holiday season. When was the last time I set aside some of my extra money to make someone’s holiday happier — not by buying someone I know a gift (easy) but by identifying a need in my relatively-unknown-to-me community and working to meet that need, even to meet an additional need for the joy and beauty of non-essentials? Aka, very few people here would get excited about receiving toilet paper, even though they may need it and appreciate it, but why can’t I provide for someone’s basic needs while also including a non-basic gift of beauty and joy, like a nice candle, or nice bottle of wine, or gift card to a “fun” store? I would argue those are also meeting basic needs, essential needs. They may be further up Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs, but they are needs. Everyone deserves joy, release, beauty, the things that speak to our humanity.
Even with that effort, I’m still not sure how to acknowledge my privilege, mourn that it comes at the expense of others’ suffering, and celebrate the joys that are a result of that privilege. I think that must be a lifelong lesson.
My friend told me once, “You are more than your privilege, just as someone is more than their oppression.” I like that. I try very hard to see the oppressed as more than just “oppressed.” Similarly, my privilege is part of me, but it isn’t the whole of me. And because of that I can and should have a complicated relationship with it. I don’t need to let my focus veer into self-flagellation for having things others don’t. Seeing privilege as a part not the whole allows me to hold and permit the unresolved (perhaps unresolveable) tension between my mourning about and gratefulness for my privilege, for giving both feelings space to express truths about my life without letting either one smother the over.
Don’t ask me why privilege made me think of our kitties, but it does. Perhaps because I feel so grateful for their little fuzzy comfort, or perhaps I realize how fortunate we are to be able to take care of two animals that bring us such joy. Either way, here are some kitties who love Christmas.
Most of all, I need to keep my eyes, ears, and mind open, to acknowledge truths when they need to be acknowledged. Truths of joy, truths of the desert of gratefulness, truths of the desert of sorrow and mourning, truths of comfort, peace, and joy… And then to let those truths guide whatever action is most needed in that moment.
There is much to celebrate and much to mourn during the holidays — in my life and in the lives of those I see around me. Wrestling with privilege is perhaps one of the truest things I can do in response to that abundance.