Home for the Holidays, Part Two: Disappointment

Last week, Dan and Becky Allender kicked off our Christmas series by talking about the sense of nostalgia that can be so prevalent this time of year and can, if not engaged with intention and care, lead to deep feelings of disappointment. This week, Dan and Becky continue that conversation by wrestling with that disappointment—the heartache that comes when the messiness and complexity of reality does not match our idealized memories or anticipations.

Becky: “With nostalgia and remembering, we still have young parts of our being inside us, in our brains. So we do return to what was and what is no more. It’s very young places that we find ourselves remembering and walking through.”

Dan: “We can’t escape it. Even the effort to escape it actually intensifies it. […] With all the importance of Christmas, the importance of family, the importance of each of our own personal desires, we didn’t seem to be able to figure out how to articulate what we expected and desired, what we dreamt that we had not even put words to.”

Of course, high expectations are understandable for such a high holiday—the notion of God becoming flesh has remarkable implications for our faith and for how we live in the world. Not to mention how ingrained holiday traditions are in our memories and identities, and the cultural bombardment of messages that this time of year needs to be magical, memorable, and perfect. The challenge, then, is not about trying to avoid disappointment. Rather, how do we live with the fallout of the disappointments that will inevitably come?

It’s a high holiday, and when there are falls they’re going to feel magnified in ways that are far greater than the normal process.

Dan: “If we don’t involve ourselves in a creative process of reforming and recreating some of the structures that we bring into the present, these nostalgic pleasures are really going to become cruel and disappointing.”

Just like the conversation around nostalgia, Becky and Dan find that it is impossible to wrestle with disappointment in an honest, holistic way without also engaging their own family of origin dynamics and the early experiences that still affect how they set themselves up for—and cope with—disappointment. And as they look back on the past holidays in their own marriage, they recognize a critical category: the ability to name when we’re disappointed without turning to contempt.

Dan: “We were trying to figure out how to metabolize our Christmas when other Christmases were intruding into our lives. […] We do much better now that have the ability at this point to name disappointment without feeling accused.”

If we do not actively engage our nostalgia—all the bittersweet memories of past holidays—and consider our responses to disappointment, we set ourselves up for devastating conflict, or the kind of grin-and-bear-it niceties that might help us coast through the New Year. As all the planning and preparation for Christmas escalates, may this be an invitation for you to pause, remember the particularities of your story, and enter an honest, generative conversation with those you love.