A Letter to the People Alone at Christmas

Dear you,

I don’t know who you are, why you are alone at Christmas, or what your loneliness looks like. Loneliness often involves a feeling of absence, and can still be experienced in the company of other people. I’m sorry for whoever or whatever is absent for you. Family. Love. Stability. A potential partner. A parent. A healthy relationship (romantic, familial or otherwise).

However you conceive of your loneliness, I hope you find some paradoxical comfort in the idea that you are not alone in how lonely you feel. Comedian Maria Bamford once suggested that if you truly believe you are alone, then you should google the identifiable source of your loneliness. Our feelings and thoughts are almost never as unique and exceptional as we think. Using the internet to find some blog posts or forum threads discussing what you’re going through might not actually be the worst idea right now.

Exactly how you process and feel loneliness at Christmas likely depends on whether you’re a Christian. If you’re celebrating and pondering the birth of Jesus Christ as the Lord and Saviour at this time, then you know you are not alone in more ways than one. While the presence of a Church community and the idea that the spirit of God dwells in all of us (1 Corinthians 3:16) are possible approaches to discovering love and warmth at Christmas time, finding resonance in Jesus’ own loneliness and personal strife might itself carry you through the season. To be precise, the object of your love at this time of year is a man who "was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem" (Isaiah 53:3). Your Saviour was a scorned outcast who took your pain and suffering upon himself. If this approach is helpful to you, then I suggest you pick up a Bible and look for passages about Jesus' lonliness, or read Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, or simply google “Jesus and loneliness,” “life of Jesus,” “Jesus and pain,” and you’ll find plenty of examples of how Christ’s experience and pain approximates your own.

If you’re not a Christian or, like many of us, you struggle with your faith, then it is important to deliberate on exactly why this season is drawing out feelings of alienation, isolation, envy or whatever you are feeling. Your pain probably begins with positive associations from past Christmas in better times. Magical childhood Christmases, Christmases when you were in love, or Christmases with family. But I assure you, you are already well-equipped to accept the inability to return to pure, untainted, naive states of experience. Just as in any romantic relationship, we must eventually give up on the fantasy that the ‘honeymoon phase’ is sustainable over a longer period, and just we (in applicable countries) had to at some point let go of the illusion that Santa Claus was real, we also have to concede that in most years, the perfect Christmas is not going to happen. The people of whom you might be envious (probably based on their social media activity) are likely either bored, driven crazy by their children or parents, or have already had multiple fights with their partners about gifts, holiday plans, how to split time between their families, etc. If they are well-adjusted and emotionally healthy people, then they are probably doing a lot of mindful compromising to have a good, conflict-free Christmas. And they are, I presume, familiar with the idea of boundaries.

Once you realize that the perfect Christmas of your fantasies is nothing close to most people’s reality at this time of year, you can consider possible compromises to ensure that your holiday season is less shitty than it would be otherwise. Remember that with reflection – which often happens in solitude – often comes personal growth and strength. Ironically, being alone, and strategizing how not to be alone or how to be okay with temporarily being alone, is doing a service to your future self in both the short and long term.

The two biggest threats to deciding what is best for you at this time of year are social media and consumer capitalism. If you really want to feel better, I would suggest you temporarily delete Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat (it’s just a few days, you can do it! and I swear you won’t miss much), but feel free to keep Facebook messenger so that you do not lose one of your possibilities to reach out to others. And if you can find the strength to fire off some messages to friends (and it feels right), then do it – even if you are embarrassed. It can be a simple “man, today’s got me down,” or “do you think the Cavs are going to beat the Warriors today?” Connecting with friends, even about Christmas Day basketball, can bring comfort and distraction.

As you know from other challenges in life, distraction can be your best friend in moments of loneliness and pain. The bonus in this case is that you know, more or less, when Christmas will be over. By the New Year you’re mostly safe. If you can distract yourself for a week or so with other things you enjoy, especially with people in contexts not related to Christmas, the whole thing will be over soon enough. Another suggestion is to connect with non-Christian friends or acquaintances for whom this time of year is not laden with cultural and familial expectations. Finally, if you find yourself still really craving to partake in the spirit of the season, consider volunteering at one of the local initiatives for the homeless, or for students and seniors separated from their families (or without families) at Christmas. You may be surprised at the kinship you develop with other people who are feeling alone at this time of year, but who have, like you, found the courage to seek an alternative way to be with others. 

Lastly, be mindful that the Christmas frenzies in stores, shopping malls and the service industry play on the intersection of our cultural norms with personal emotions with the goal of inciting people to spend more money. In this way, Christmas is analogous to Valentine’s Day. It is not only single or lonely people who find this phenomenon incredibly alienating. I’ve written about the "culture industry" and how it conditions our desires and needs in view of profit in a previous post about Louis C.K. This point can be connected to the idea that by posting our personal experience of Christmas on social media, we are in fact working for corporations that will target us in future advertisements through Facebook and Instagram. For example, if I post about drinking eggnog with my family, I will very likely see an advertisement for a certain brand of eggnog on Facebook in the upcoming days. By knowing and reflecting on this consumer capitalist reality of Christmas, you can perhaps view your own attempts to stay clear of social media for these few difficult days as a countercultural exercise in self-care.

This Christmas will pass, and there will be other Christmases in your future that will be less alienating than this year’s (but still not perfect). I hope your reflections this year on how to deal with feeling alone will bring insight on how you want to be with the loved ones that will undoubtedly come into your life in the future – either again or anew.