Holiday parties at work. Ugliest sweater contests. Family gatherings. Shopping extravaganzas. The winter holiday season has often fascinated me in its dichotomy between the deep yearning to feel connected and the overwhelming disconnectedness of normal life.
Let’s take Christmas, for example. What seems to make the classic Christmas movies and songs so poignant is the sense of shared experience they foster. During this one slice of the calendar year, many of us who celebrate this holiday have the experience of feeling like we aren’t among strangers. We let down our guards to share the preciousness of the moment. A similar thing happens in different ways within the Jewish tradition that I am part of, and I imagine it is true in other traditions as well. Holidays allow us to express our desire for deeper connection.
I recently attended the Winter Party of an international meetup called “Consciousness Hacking,” a gathering of urban folks designed to foster connection and community through the innovative use of technology. In my modern lifestyle, I feel alone even among a crowd, but the way this gathering was set up, it allowed our conversations to go just a little bit deeper. There was a silent dance party with headsets, creating an unusual experience of aloneness and togetherness at the same time. There were rooms which had a half formal, half casual conversation structure, allowing us to talk authentically about interesting things. The result was that everyone felt welcomed and safe to be themselves.
The confusing message of Christmas
There is also another side to the winter experience in mainstream US culture, in that we are flooded with “stuff”: presents, parties, food, decorations. So when Ellie and I went to Target yesterday, I was struck by the contrast between my desire for human connection and the overwhelming material abundance present in the Christmas culture.
Walking through the store, I began to feel numb to the excessive choices I could make. With millions of dollars of goods within those four walls, and a credit card with thousands of dollars of credit available, I was seduced to the point of overwhelm.
Examining my feelings a little more closely, the experience was overwhelming partly because it was devoid of human connection or self-expression (although the experience might be different for others). I left the store feeling strung-out and amped-up with a hit of dopamine, the hormonal kick we get from making a new purchase. Much like the high I get from checking my email, I was left feeling empty. The experience lacked what I was really seeking: real human connection (which is associated with a different hormone, oxytocin).
Seeking out quality experiences among the hubbub
When we stepped outside the store, there was a man with a tub of soapy water and a long, homemade string device to create massive bubbles. It was apparently his way of earning money to survive, collecting donations from passers-by. Ellie loved it and played with the two sticks and string for ten minutes, while I captured priceless footage with my phone.
Compared to the safety and predictability of the shopping experience, this was a much more uncomfortable experience. We were in a public parking lot with people watching and cars passing by. I had to screw up the courage and social skills to interact authentically with this gentleman whom I had never met. It was so much easier to just walk from shelf to shelf thinking about my shopping list. But this was so much more rewarding at a deep level.
Strangely, the joy I felt with the Bubble Guy was harder to experience than the stress of shopping. Stress is a familiar feeling that allows me to focus on my task and allows me to give in to my grumpiest tendencies. Stress allows me to shut out the world and not care what others think, and with that comes a certain kind of freedom. But joy can be much harder. Joy requires that I not care what others think of me, but then invite them into the experience. Unreserved smiling and laughing in public is a vulnerable yet profound experience.
Value the meaningful experiences
This was the only memorable part of our shopping experience. The rest of our time in the store is lost to history. Yet I am left feeling confused as to why I was willing to spend over a hundred dollars at the store, while giving the man even $4 felt like a stretch.
During this holiday season, as I deal with the elevated emotional and sensory experiences, I will be thinking about what is going to last. Which experiences am I going to remember? Which experiences are going to change me? These are the ones I want to focus on.