Kintsukuroi Christmas

Have you ever opened a Christmas present to find it wasn’t quite what you expected?

I confess, I hate Secret Santa. I’ve been scarred more than once. One time a group of my friends decided it would be good to do a Secret Santa. I spend an hour or two making sure that I found a present for my secret santa that was good quality, something small but meaningful. After all, no one wants to get some dud present. In the end I bought this person a small sampler of some good quality chocolates – something discreet, tasteful and universally enjoyed.

In return, I got a tin of cat food … and not even good quality cat food, but the cheapest generic cat food from the worst supermarket chain.

Stunned, I remember stammering, “But … I don’t have a cat …” (For the record, my friends were very unsympathetic and thought it was extremely hilarious).

Another time for a workplace Secret Santa, I had to buy for one of my receptionists. Again, I thought about something that would be discreet, tasteful and universally enjoyed, and I tracked down a small gift box from the Body Shop.

In return, I got batteries, and again, not good batteries, but the cheap variety that have lost half their charge before you even take them from the packet. To rub salt into that particular wound, my secret santa revealed himself as one of the other doctors in the practice, who proudly said, “You’ve got kids, so I thought batteries would be a great present for all of the toys they’re going to get.”

Dude, I’ve got Asperger’s, and even I know that was a sucky present! So, uh, thanks?

Ever since the first Christmas more than two thousand years ago, Christmas is a time of giving gifts. In the description of the first Christmas in the Bible, the three magi (or wise men) brought the baby Jesus three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. Interestingly, history suggests that these gifts were extraordinarily precious which in ancient times made them standard gifts to honour a king or deity. Gold as we know is a precious metal. Frankincense was used as perfume or incense and myrrh was used as an anointing oil. These same three items were apparently among the gifts, recorded in ancient inscriptions, that King Seleucus II Callinicus offered to the god Apollo at the temple in Miletus in 243 B.C.E.

Christmas presents have come a long way since then, and even more so in the last century. My father was born in a poor part of northern England at the end of the great depression, the youngest child of a family of ten children. He would tell me of his Christmases growing up and how his brothers and sisters looked forward to getting an apple, an orange and some nuts in their Christmas stockings. When I was a pre-teen in the 80’s, I got books and clothes, cricket gear and matchbox cars (hey, they were cool back in the day). This Christmas, all my tween and teen children want is electronic consoles (my son has his heart set on a Wii Switch). I don’t dare think what my grandchildren will be asking for at Christmas time in twenty or thirty years’ time.

Whether you get presents fit for a king or you end up with the booby prize of generic cat food, we at least expect our presents to work. No one wants a broken present after all. So imagine if when you opened your Christmas present, it was cracked, or chipped, or broken. What would you do? Would you keep it, or hope that the person who gave it to you kept the receipt?

There’s an ancient Japanese tradition that would not only keep things which were broken, in repairing them, would make them even more precious. For more than 400 years, the Japanese people have practiced kintsukuroi. Kintsukuroi (pronounced ‘kint soo koo ree’) is the art of repairing broken pottery with gold or silver lacquer, and the deep understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.

The edges of the broken fragments are coated with a glue made from Japanese lacquer resin and are bonded back into place. The joints are rubbed with an adhesive until the surface is perfectly smooth again. After drying, more lacquer is applied. This process is repeated many times, and gold dust is also applied.

In kintsukuroi, the gold lacquer accentuates the fracture lines, and the breakage is honoured as part of that piece’s history.

In the practice of kintsukuroi, we see the principle that whilst all things have the capacity to be broken, they also have the capacity for redemption.

Sometimes I feel very, very broken … hopeless, useless, like I’m just a broken present. Sometimes I wish I could be returned, but I didn’t come with a receipt and sometimes I feel like no one would want me back anyway. Sometimes I feel like I’m good for nothing but the scrapheap.

Whether it’s mental illness, family stress, financial hardship or just the daily grind wearing us down, we can all find ourselves feeling a bit broken at times.

Christmas reminds us of the gift of redemption. Jesus’ life was one of fixing that which was broken, of giving people a second chance. The gospels tell story after story of how Jesus helped people back on to their feet; forgiving, healing and restoring hope. Even his life before his ministry was that of a carpenter, creating new things and fixing that which was broken.

It’s easy to feel broken in this broken world, but remember, whilst all things have the capacity to be broken, they also have the capacity for redemption. No one is beyond repair. Like objects fixed with kintsukuroi, being broken isn’t the end, but we can become even better – more beautiful and more honoured for having been broken.

I hope that this Christmas, you can find hope and redemption, and that you get some good gifts worthy of a king, not worthy of a cat.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone. See you in 2019.

The lost art of joy – Rest

So Christmas 2017 has come and gone for those of us just to the right of the International Date Line. How did you fare? Was your Christmas a day of joy?

Now we’re in the post-Christmas hangover, the come down from the sugar and ethanol excesses of the day before. In Australia, New Zealand and the UK, we call December 26th “Boxing Day”, although it doesn’t have anything to do with pugilism. The name most likely derives from the giving of Christmas “boxes”, a tradition which may date back to the Middle Ages when church members would collect money for the poor in alms boxes which were opened on the day after Christmas in honour of St Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose feast day falls on 26 December. The tradition may even be older than that, possibly dating back to the Christianised late Roman empire. Either way, at some point St Stephen’s Day became associated with public acts of charity.

In modern Australia, the boxes that are usually associated with Boxing Day are the boxes you put all the loot you’ve acquired in the post-Christmas sales into. So it’s a bit of an irony that what was once a day of giving to those less fortunate have become about acquiring more things for yourself.

But I digress.

The post-Christmas sales are traditionally a day of high-stress chaos as throngs of enthusiastic shoppers crowd the malls again, to fight for car parking spaces, tables at cafes, space to walk around, and toilet cubicles. Hours of this at a time can suck the positivity out of even the hardiest of shoppers.

It doesn’t have to be this way though. The cure for post-Christmas languor doesn’t have to be more stress, but if anything, Boxing Day could easily be a day of rest.

Making time to rest is an important part of maintaining good health. Forms of deep relaxation, such as meditation, not only relieve stress and anxiety, but also improve mood. Deep relaxation can also decrease blood pressure, relieve pain, and improve your immune and cardiovascular systems. Relaxation doesn’t always mean sleeping (although good sleep also helps to maintain a good mood and good health overall) or just things like meditation. Rest and relaxation can involve having a laugh, which decreases pain, promotes muscle relaxation and can reduce anxiety. Rest and relaxation can involve taking the time to simply connect with friends without having to work hard to try and impress them. Even something as simple as a hug from a good friend, or patting your dog or cat, can be relaxing and mood lifting. Remember, R+R involves anything that makes you feel better at the end than it did at the beginning.

So, there’s still joy to be found, even in the post-Christmas hangover. This can be done as they did traditionally, by giving to those less fortunate, or in taking the time to relax and unwind from the celebration of Christmas, or even in the simple connection of a hug from a friend.

The lost art of joy – Joy to the world

* MERRY CHRISTMAS *

Did St Nicholas visit you last night? I think I must have been on the naughty list!

Yesterday, we looked at the origins of Santa Claus, and how the cultural icon that we have for our modern Christmas was actually built upon over time – from the Coke commercials of the 1930’s, which in turn were based on illustrations in a magazine in the 1880’s, which in turn was based on a poem written in the 1820’s, which in turn was inspired by the various tales and legends of 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

All of those were based on the life of Bishop Nicholas of Myra, who was later recognised as St Nicholas.

But the life of St Nicholas was in turn inspired by one man whose birth we celebrate today on December 25th*.

Whether you believe he is the Son of God or not, Jesus, the son of a carpenter from a back block of the Roman empire, undeniably changed the world. The influence of Christianity permeates our culture, from our calendar to our holidays to our systems of government and our democracy.

Jesus still has followers numbering in the billions all over the world, and his teachings on love, generosity and peace have inspired countless people spanning hundreds of generations to seek the best in others, to live for a purpose bigger than themselves. To give and to forgive, to go and to grow.

But even more so for those who believe that he is the Son of God, Jesus promises eternal life connected to God in heaven, which is the ultimate joy.

Jesus isn’t just for the rich and powerful, the famous, those who are ‘worthy’ of him. His promises of love, connection, and joy everlasting are available to everyone no matter how ordinary or poor or oppressed. That’s why, when Jesus was born, angels appeared to shepherds in the fields, not to the religious or political upper class.

In the gospel of Luke, it reads,

And there were shepherds living out in the fields near by, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.’

~ Luke 2:8-14

Yes indeed, the birth of Jesus was good news of great joy.

We celebrate Christmas because, 2000 years ago in a stable in the back blocks of the middle east, a baby was born, a baby who would grow into a man, a man whose influence inspired selfless giving and love through countless generations.

Whether it be through a life of devotion to God, or giving to a child overseas through a charity, or making a meal for those without a home, or even if it’s simply seen in the gifts left in a stocking by a jolly old man in a red suit, the love and generosity of Jesus still inspires joy now, and forevermore if you choose to believe.

Truly, joy to the world.

~~~

* I know … technically Jesus wasn’t born on the 25th of December. He was probably born in the middle of the year, sometime in the northern hemisphere summer, and the date of the 25th of December was chosen by the Roman Emperor Constantine in AD 336, in place of the celebration of the Pagan Sun god Mithra. The most important thing is that we remember and celebrate it 🙂

The lost art of joy – St Nicholas

Santa Claus – c1881 and c1931

When you’re Santa Claus, kids will tell you anything.

When I was at University, I had a holiday job running children’s activities and games for parties, work functions and the like. One of the roles I got to do a few times was to don the Santa suit and ho-ho-ho for 20 minutes while asking all the kids what they wanted for Christmas. Though I found that some of the chattier kids weren’t just telling me that they wanted for Christmas, but what they did yesterday, and what they’re going to be when they grow up, and what mummy and daddy do at work, and where they live. Lucky my intentions weren’t nefarious! Quick tip – never tell children important information like credit card numbers if you don’t want the guy playing Santa to know as well.

Santa Claus is an enduring symbol of western Christmas celebrations, part of our modern cultural folklore. Santa is almost exclusively associated with joy – he’s kind, he brings gifts and he’s jolly with a deep belly laugh. He seeks goodness in people. As TV producer and Santa performer, Jonathan Meath said, “Santa is really the only cultural icon we have who’s male, does not carry a gun, and is all about peace, joy, giving, and caring for other people. That’s part of the magic for me, especially in a culture where we’ve become so commercialized and hooked into manufactured icons. Santa is much more organic, integral, connected to the past, and therefore connected to the future.”

So where did the notion of the modern Santa come from?

Modern cultural Santa, like most things in our modern world, was influenced by commercialisation. The modern image of Santa, a jolly fat man with a big white beard, in a red snow suit, comes from Coca Cola. In 1931, illustrator Haddon Sundblom created the image of Santa as we currently know him, and from 1931-1964, Sundblom created a new ad for Coke each year featuring the jolly old fat man.

Sundblom, in turn, took his inspiration for Santa Claus from the drawings of political cartoonist Thomas Nast. At the turn of the 20th century, several illustrators were drawing Santa Claus as a fat man with a beard, smoking a pipe. The inspiration for these pictures of Santa came from the work of Nast who between 1863 and 1883, published a drawing of Santa Claus every year in the magazine Harpers Weekly. Nast’s most popular, and most recognised rendition of Santa was published in early 1881.

Nast himself drew inspiration for his depictions of Santa Claus from the stories and traditions that preceded him in the early 1800’s, specifically the very famous poem, “A visit from St Nicholas”, or what is also known as “T’was the night before Christmas”. This poem was published in 1823. Around this time in history, writers and illustrators had begun to rediscover some of the old stories and were using them to tell stories about the gift-givers of Christmas.

Prior to the 1800’s, traditions of gift-giving were still very strong but in early 16th century Europe after the protestant reformation, the old stories and traditions became unpopular. So in the UK, particularly in England, he became ‘Father Christmas’ from stories plays during the middle ages in the UK and parts of northern Europe. In parts of Austria and Germany, the present giver became the ‘Christkind’ a golden-haired baby, with wings, who symbolizes the new born baby Jesus. In the early USA his name was ‘Kris Kringle’ (from the Christkind).

Dutch settlers to the USA took their tradition of ’Sinterklaas’ with them, and over time, Kris Kringle and Father Christmas became intertwined with Sinterklaas, which morphed to ‘Santa Claus’.

In turn, the origins of Sinterklaas, Father Christmas and Kris Kringle was St Nicholas.

So who was St Nicholas exactly? What’s known about St Nicholas was that he was born during the third century in the village of Patara, in Asia Minor (currently, modern Turkey). His parents raised him as a devout Christian but died when he was a child. His parents left him a significant inheritance, but instead of spending it on himself, Nicholas used his whole inheritance to assist the needy, the sick, and the suffering. He dedicated his life to serving God and was made Bishop of Myra while still a young man. Bishop Nicholas became known throughout the land for his generosity to those in need. Under the Roman Emperor Diocletian, Bishop Nicholas suffered for his faith, was exiled and imprisoned. He died on the 6th of December AD 343.

There were many stories that make up the legend of St Nicholas, and certain miracles that were ascribed to him, which help explain the origins of the modern character of St Nicholas.

One story tells of a poor man with three daughters. The man was so poor, he could not pay a dowry so that his daughters, meaning that rather than get married, they would be sold into slavery. But on three different occasions, a bag of gold mysteriously appeared in their home – providing the needed dowries. The bags of gold were said to have been tossed through an open window to have landed in stockings or shoes left before the fire to dry, hence the custom of children hanging stockings or putting out shoes in readiness for gifts from Saint Nicholas.

Several stories tell of Nicholas and the sea. It is said that when he was young, Nicholas made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There as he walked where Jesus walked, he sought to more deeply experience Jesus’ life, passion, and resurrection. Returning by sea, a storm arose which threatened to wreck the ship. Nicholas calmly prayed, and the wind and waves suddenly calmed, sparing them all.

There’s a lot that we can learn from the original St Nicholas. He lived a life and taught others of the value of giving, of connection, of selfless kindness. In turn, all of these acts brought joy to those around him.

Christmas can also be a time for joy, not just for us, but for those around us, if we too can follow the lead of St Nicholas – being selfless, being kind, being generous, connecting with others.

The lost art of joy – Music

With only five days to go before Christmas, most people are rushing into the shops to purchase those last minute items.

The average shopping centre in the pre-Christmas week is an auditory and visual cacophony. Not only are there people EVERYWHERE, there are fairy lights, baubles, and tinsel everywhere! Then there are those Christmas carols, the auditory froth of tinny Christmas melody bubbling incessantly in the background. It’s all enough to make you want to shop on-line.

It’s such a shame the way Christmas carols have been subjugated and exploited for commercial gain. So many of the old Christmas carols are euphonious in their own right, with a lyrical profundity that encapsulates the deeper meaning of Christmas in just a few words.

In fact, music in general is fundamental to us as a language of emotion. The linguist Steven Pinker once said that music was “auditory cheesecake,” a purposeless byproduct of language development. But music is deeper than language. Neuroscience suggests that we’re hardwired to interpret and react emotionally to music from before we’re able to crawl, and well and truly before we develop language. Music activates most of our brain, from our frontal lobe and temporal lobe to process the sounds across both sides of the brain. Music also activates our visual cortex, our motor cortex, our memory centres and, not surprisingly, our deep emotional brain centres. It’s only if the song has lyrics that our language processing areas are activated.

Music has been shown to affect our physical bodies and our minds. Music helped to reduce blood pressure, heart rate and anxiety in heart disease patients, while upbeat music can have a very positive effect on our emotional wellbeing, so long as the music was happy and upbeat. Music that we expect to be happy also results in an increase of dopamine, the neurotransmitter of pleasure.

So the emotional connection that music carries is very important for our overall joy.

Listening to music can increase our joy. While the research supports the improvement in mood that comes from listening to happy, upbeat music, there’s a place for ‘sad’ or ‘angry’ songs too, which can connect directly to our souls and provide a type of catharsis that goes beyond trying to express our emotions through the clunky limitation of speech.

Music can help to scaffold memories, especially emotional memories. Remember the music playing when you had your first kiss? Or the song that they played at a friends funeral? Playing those songs related to happy times in your life can help you to recall and re-experience those uplifting emotions if you’re feeling down.

Music creates opportunities for healing. Hospitalised children were happier during music therapy (in which all the children were involved and could play with simple musical instruments like maracas and bells while a leader played the guitar) than they were in standard play therapy when their options puzzles and toys.

But more than anything, music increases joy through the power of human connection. Music is emotionally deeper than language and the social bond that music can create between people is much stronger than any intellectual or verbal connection. There have been numerous studies that demonstrate this – people who go to concerts and who go dancing report higher levels of subjective wellbeing than those people who listen to music on their own. People who create music together have higher levels of happiness and find other activities more pleasurable overall, an effect which has been demonstrated in groups of both adults and school children.

So if you want to increase your joy, engage with music, and use music to engage with other people … even if it is singing Christmas carols.

The lost art of joy – Simplicity

Over the last couple of days, we talked about joy through balance, balance of our stress levels and balance of our time commitments.

There is another aspect of balance and joy – the balance in our physical life, the joy inherent to a life of simplicity.

In our modern western society, we grow up with a couple of implicit assumptions – rich people are happy, and poor people are not happy. Sort of capitalism’s golden rule. But are those assumptions true?

In the late 1970’s, Philip Brickman and his colleagues published a study in which they suggested that people who had won the lottery were no happier than a similarly matched control group who had not won any money.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the idea that joy can be attained from a simple life is as old as the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus, who history records, sought a tranquil life – “a state of satiation and tranquility that was free of the fear of death and the retribution of the gods. When we do not suffer pain, we are no longer in need of pleasure, and we enter a state of ‘perfect mental peace’.” He spent his time in a garden and taught his school of philosophy there. He was content to eat simple meals, and aspired to a neutral mood.

So if joy can be found in the simple life, and is not necessarily guaranteed through material wealth, why do we have have expensive houses filled with expensive cars, whole wardrobes of designer clothes we hardly wear, subscribing to 200 channels on massive wide-screen TV’s that we don’t have time to watch because we’re on social media on our expensive smart phones, complaining about the unrepayable personal debt that we have.

This post is certainly not a diatribe against all material things or debt necessarily. I love my iPhone X, my Apple Watch, my iPad pro etc etc. I don’t need them all, but I like them. It would be hypocritical to push an anti-consumerism line while being stocked up with nearly every Apple product I can fit on my person.

The key is balance. Embracing a level of minimalism doesn’t guarantee happiness, but trimming some of the unnecessary trappings of materialism can make room for those things that count more in terms of joy.

Embracing a level of minimalism is a means to an end. It frees up some of our most finite resources like time, money, energy, and helps to remove stress. It frees up all of these resources that you can now start investing in what brings you purpose.

Finding joy through minimalism is an expression of living through your values, which we discussed in an earlier post. It’s much easier to say no to things that have no significant value when we understand what is that is of significant value.

One we know what is truly important to us, we can start clearing our lives of all the things that clutter our lives, the material possessions that suck up our time and unbalance our quest for joy.

Writing about minimalism at a time like Christmas, one of the biggest shopping seasons of the year, is always a little ironic. That said, I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be buying presents for others, and that we should abandon Christmas shopping altogether. Though we can use the opportunity to declutter a little by giving in other ways.

Perhaps all of those clothes you aren’t wearing can be given to your local church or charity to pass on to those whose wardrobe is sparse. Perhaps you can have a garage sale to thin out the junkyard of unused appliances in your house, and donate the proceeds to feed those who are hungry.

That is the generosity of Christmas at its best and has the added bonus of decluttering your life – a double whammy of joy at Christmas.

The lost art of joy – Friendship

Last night, my family and I had dinner with an old friend.

I should clarify … by ‘old’, I don’t mean ‘geriatric’. I mean that I have known this friend for a long time. She is the person I have been friends with the longest, having first met her in early medical school nearly a quarter of a century ago. It’s a friendship that survives despite geographical, logistical and theological differences, because it’s built on the deepest mutual respect and care. I don’t have many friends, but this friend is definitely a keeper.

Friendships mean different things to different people. Some friends are gregarious, a source of instant joy, that person that always makes you laugh even when life makes you want to cry. Then there are those friends who enkindle that deeper sense of joy, because they are steadfast through the tough times.

In the 21st century, our concept of friendship has undergone some pretty radical changes. Before 2004, ‘social networks’ were the people you physically hung out with. Now when you talk about ‘social networks’, people assume you’re referring to Facebook.

Is physical social networking better than virtual? Everyone has their own opinion. We know that humans are wired for social interaction, with specific areas of the brain devoted to social behaviour, such as the orbitofrontal cortex. There are also neurotransmitters and hormones that are strongly associated with bonding and maintenance of social relationships, like oxytocin and β-endorphins. Research has shown that both humans and other primates find social stimuli intrinsically rewarding—babies look longer at faces than at non-face stimuli.

We also know that people who engage in social relationships are more likely to live longer, and that loneliness predicts depressive symptoms, impaired sleep and daytime dysfunction, reductions in physical activity, and impaired mental health and cognition. At the biological level, loneliness is associated with altered blood pressure, increased stress hormone secretion, a shift in the balance of cytokines towards inflammation and altered immunity. Loneliness may predict a shortened life-span.

It’s important to understand what loneliness is, and conversely, what defines good social relationships? Fundamentally, good or bad social relationships are related to the quality of the social interaction. This rule applies equally to real social networks and their on-line equivalents. So quality is fundamentally more important than quantity in terms of friendships, with that quality strongly determined by the connection within those social relationships. For example, loneliness “can be thought of as perceived isolation and is more accurately defined as the distressing feeling that accompanies discrepancies between one’s desired and actual social relationships”.

The corollary is that friendship can be thought of as perceived connection within social relationships, or the comforting feeling that accompanies the match between one’s desired and actual social relationships.

So healthy social relationships aren’t defined by the size of your network, but by the strength of the connections that your network contains, relative to what’s important to you. Just because you’re not a vivacious extrovert who is friends with everyone doesn’t mean that your social network is lacking. It also means that you can have meaningful connections to friends through social media, just as much as you can have meaningful connections through face-to-face interactions. It’s not the way you interact, but the quality of the connection that counts.

One way to increase the quality of your social connections is to enjoy your friendships mindfully. Mindfulness is being fully engaged in the present moment. So mindful friendships is to be fully engaged with the other people around you, to use all your senses to connect with those around you. To ignore the other social networks around you on your phone or tablet, keeping them out of sight and out of mind until afterwards.

Try it. At the next Christmas party, or when you’re with your loved ones on Christmas Day, turn off the phone and engage with the people around you as mindfully as you can, and see if you experience a new and improved form of Christmas joy.