Christmas is upon us, and here I am sitting on the floor, late at night, with only the glow of the Christmas tree lights and the screen of my laptop illuminating the room. It is quiet in my home, yet somehow music keeps rolling through my head. It isn’t a song of the season, but rather the melodic cadence of a lifetime. Maybe it’s the glow of the trees, or the silence around me, but moments like this have a way of pulling my gaze away from the noise and pace of everyday life and bringing my focus back to what really matters.
As we continue through a season that is supposed to be filled with joy and love, I look around and see stress and frustration on the faces of people around me. Drivers are out of control with anger; shoppers are pushing and shoving each other; some people are going into debt trying to meet their (or others’) expectations of gift-giving. There are also some who are living with great losses and challenges that cause all the standard holiday activities to simply disappear into the background. In a season that is so often labeled as “magical,” it becomes easy to feel everything but a sense of wonder. Busyness and activity has a way of doing that before we even realize it.
I had a hard time this year thinking of things to put on my wish list for Christmas. I honestly couldn’t think of a single thing for which I had a great desire. It’s not that I have everything I want materially; it’s just that I found myself incredibly content for the first time in a long time. Somehow in the midst of my incredibly difficult and distressing year filled with loss and change, I realized what I valued had shifted. It was only when I sat staring at an empty Christmas list that I even recognized it.
It’s so easy to spend our lives focusing on what we don’t have or what we’ve lost. This year my husband’s parents passed away just five days apart, and my own dad’s dementia escalated to the point where he had to move into a memory care community. It was devastating for us all, and my mom had to sell their house to ensure dad could stay in his new community as long as possible, as most memory care facilities aren’t covered by insurance (don’t get me started on that). Mom moved in with me and my husband, and we’ve been adjusting to our new rhythm as best we can. Loss after loss, grief after grief with no end in sight. Have you just ever had that kind of year? If so, then you understand how quickly our perspective changes. All we see is loss, because loss is all that is visible to us. Everywhere we look there is more grief and pain, more difficult circumstances, and more that is slipping (or has slipped) between our fingers. It is a natural reaction, but it doesn’t remove the negative effect it can have on our lives.
Dementia has a way of turning everything upside down. One of the things I love about Teepa Snow, and her organization (www.teepasnow.com ), is that she continually stresses the importance of looking at what someone still has, instead of what they’ve lost. Build and foster your relationship based on things they are still able to do instead of what you wish they could still do. When you focus on the abilities someone still possesses, it frees you from the stress that comes from your skewed expectations. You can expect all day long that your loved one with dementia still has the abilities they’ve always had, but you will just be frustrated and your relationship with that person will suffer. It’s about living in the moment, taking them where they are and creating beautiful experiences for you both. I can’t help but think how that concept applies in so many other ways in life. When we try to build or foster relationships while continually focusing on what the other person has lost or is lacking, we are setting ourselves up for frustration and disappointment. We will never be satisfied, because we will always be seeing the holes instead of the substance. We keep trying to work with what isn’t there instead of what is. What a frustrating endeavor, and even more so when the relationship we are struggling with is the one with ourselves. It is impossible to build or maintain that internal relationship when we see nothing but what we’ve lost or can’t do anymore. We can’t build a relationship with ourselves with that perspective, because it will always be skewed and will never be fulfilling. From a spiritual standpoint, it becomes so easy to start blaming God when things haven’t gone right in our world, or at least what we think is “right,” and then our relationship with Him suffers also. It’s a slippery slope for sure.
So many people talk about the art of letting go, and there is definitely something incredible about releasing things that hold you back. But what about the art of holding on? We spend a lot of time trying to identify our obstacles instead of our strengths. We focus on what we need to purge from our lives instead of what we already have that needs to be fostered. I remember a comedian once said about the Bible, “Everyone thinks the Bible is a book of don’ts, but it’s really a book of do-s. And if we’d spend our time doing the do-s, we wouldn’t have time to do the don’ts.” I heard that over 30 years ago, and it still sticks with me today just as strongly, because it also applies to how we look at ourselves and others. If we would spend our time fostering (or appreciating) what we already have, it doesn’t leave much time or energy to focus on what we are lacking in skills, abilities, or even material possessions. Ask yourself these questions: What do I have to work with? Do I have a special ability or skill? Am I good at something? What are those things? If you ask people to name something they are good at, many (if not most) of them will say they don’t know. Why? Because we don’t stop to look at what we have; we look at what we don’t. We see what we wish we were, wish we had, or wish we could do. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t strive to be better people, become more skilled, get an education or go after something new. And I’m certainly not saying you can’t change. This year has been full of huge changes for me internally, and believe me, it is always possible to change. It’s possible to be freed from things that chained you in the past, but you also need to focus on what you already possess. Search your heart deeply for a moment, you know what they are. They are those things you have forgotten as the cares of this world continually try to distract you from seeing your gifts.
Dealing with someone who has dementia has brought so many lessons for dealing with life in general. When someone has dementia, you have to meet them where they are in order to develop and maintain a relationship with them. My dad isn’t who he used to be, and yet he is still exactly who he always was. I just have to find those things that he can still do and live in that place with him. This relationship is not exactly as I wished or hoped it would be at this stage in both our lives, but it can still be something amazing. Embracing, celebrating and being thankful for all he can still do, allows me to be open to riding this roller coaster with him instead of watching him ride alone. It allows me to live life with him now, in this moment, instead of continually seeing nothing but what has faded into the fabric of our journey. If we want to fully live, we must live in the NOW.
Work with what you have. Meet people where they are. Meet YOURSELF where you are. There are so many other abilities you may have, but those are above and beyond the fact you have been gifted with life itself. Even the ability to breathe and communicate are gifts. Trust me, you can always do something and then work from there. If you will start seeing and nurturing what you already have, you’ll be amazed at what else will suddenly appear. When you are willing to meet a dementia patient where they are, and work with what they have, it’s AMAZING how that tightly closed shell opens up to reveal the pearls within. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. If we could just do that with ourselves, what greatness might we unlock? What goals might we achieve? What dreams might come true if we will just stop jumping ahead (or backwards) and look at what we’ve lost and simply develop what we still have?
So as we celebrate this Christmas that is upon us, let us first remember the greatest gift God gave us by coming to earth to sacrifice Himself so we can have eternal life. But let us also remember He didn’t have much from a material standpoint, but He always worked with what He had. When He called others to join Him, He worked with what they had and compelled them to do the same. Let us celebrate not just the life of Christ, but the life He wants for each of us. He’s gifted every single one of us with abilities, even when we feel we don’t have anything on which we can build. Stop for a moment. Look within and stop focusing on what you’ve lost or wish you had. Look deeply and start recognizing all you still have, every single thing you have or are able to do is a gift. No matter your circumstances or what you might see as your deficiencies, you have way more “gifts” than you can imagine.
To quote the Grinch, “Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
Merry Christmas and may you all be blessed with moments in which to live a lifetime!