Holiday Alienation

Writing this between Christmas and New Year’s days, and having seen a few clients in between, the experience remains fresh: the year-end holidays offer the occasion for alienation. I mean the worst kind: self-alienation.  It’s been this way for as long as I can remember. I hesitate to say “universal,” but certainly many people know what I’m talking about. And I know, too.

By self-alienation I mean that terrible feeling of having lost your sense of who you really are. The set-up is perfect: Cultural and family expectations around the year-end holidays, family patterns going back years, if not generations, and the reality that people really are different from one another. Christmas and New Year’s “as usual” present two ways you can end up feeling self-alienated. You can participate, blend in, “go with the program;” or you can attempt actively to structure the situation, hoping to make everybody involved comfortable and feeling welcomed.

To the extent that you blend in long enough without holding on to who you really are, you run the risk of losing your sense of self in the business-as-usual of the holidays. That tends toward depression.

To the extent you actively try to make everybody else feel at home, but don’t adequately attend to your own need for being real and authentic, you lose yourself. This route tends toward anger and exhaustion.

What I write here doesn’t apply to those for whom the Christmas message of spiritual renewal really works. Once upon a time (I want to believe), the Winter Solstice and the birth of the Christ child signaled the end of Darkness and the renewal of the Light, not only the solar light and the coming days of increased daylight but, more importantly, the re-awakening of an “inner” Light that promised to save us from our condition as mere human animals. In the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas Jesus is quoted as saying, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you have will save you. If you do not have that within you, what you do not have within you [will] kill you.” “Whoever lacks the “inner light” cannot bring it forth.

“Inner Light,” as I understand it, informs my sense of self: that which gives me the sense of being real, authentic, “on track,” doing and being “what I’m meant to do and be.” Jung expressed it in psychological terms when he wrote about the “life-line”: The construction of “life-lines” reveals to consciousness the ever-changing direction of the currents of libido [i.e., psychic energy].”(1)

An individual’s “life-line” (usually) does not appear as a four-lane super highway. Neither does it follow a straight course nor does the same direction last forever. “These life-lines, therefore, are never general principles or universally accepted ideals, but points of view and attitudes that have a provisional value.”(2) You can begin to recognize your individual, current life-line as an interest, an inclination, as a fantasy that preoccupies you, that time and again appears in your consciousness. “I think I’d like to . . . .” By noticing and following our current, provisional individual life-line as soon and as far as we can, over time we gradually uncover “an individual nucleus which is covered by the personal mask,”(3) by our conventional adaptation to whatever situation we find ourselves in at the moment. In this way we discover progressively more of ‘that which we have inside us that will save us if we bring it forth.’ Over time—months and years—the meanderings of our individual life-line reveals the path our life has taken, “made up, unfortunately, of fateful detours and wrong turnings,” the goal of which is the “whole” individual that reveals and incarnates the essential nucleus, “hidden and as yet unmanifest.”(4) I understand the notion of the individual life-line as one way of imaging a spark of the “inner light” of which Christmas and the Winter Solstice (should) remind us.

In the moment, however, when you recognize that you have lost your “feel” of who you really are, you need to reconnect with yourself. Psyche may help in the form of a thought, image, memory, or fantasy of some activity—however inconsequential or significant—that you have found to some degree satisfying. (Often for me it is either going back to studying something that interests me, putzing-around in my wood shop, or tending my house plants.) If nothing comes to mind, your situation is more distressing. Then you may have to try one thing, then another, and another for a few minutes until you discover something, some activity or focus of attention that holds your interest for a while. Paraphrasing, the Gospel of Thomas tells us, we have to find something within us and bring it forth that will save us—and I add: from self-alienation and meaninglessness. Recall what Jung wrote: the life-line is provisional. It works for a while until the flow of your psychic energy changes direction. Then you have to pay attention and change with it if you don’t want to end up stranded in some sort of self-alienated funk.

You are reading these lines—mid-January— and, I hope, you have survived. To the extent you have recovered from holiday self-alienation, you again have a sense of being your real (at least to some degree). The challenge does not end with the holidays. Everyday each of us has the opportunity to lose our sense of who we are and the challenge of re-discovering our life-line, that provisional sense of self-identity. We can’t take the current life-line for granted because our psychic energy does not follow any straight line, as we know from observing how our interests wax and wane.

So with these cheerful (?) thoughts, I wish you a Happy New Year. Best Wishes for staying in touch with who you really, essentially are this and every year.

(1) Jung, C.G. (1916 / 1970).  Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, vol. 7, The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Princeton: Princeton University Press, para. 500ff. (“Libido” is Jung’s term for psychic energy.)
(2)Ibid., para. 501.
(3)Ibid., para. 504.
(4)Jung, C.G. (1953/1968). Psychology and Alchemy, vol. 12 of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Princeton: Princeton University Press, para.6