2 Christmas parties completed and 5 to go; each project of the Sisters of Good Shepherd has its own celebration. Last Saturday’s Outreach Christmas went well thanks to the hard work the children and teenagers put in learning their dance routines at Christmas Camp.
The day’s activities left Lauren, Susan, and me physically exhausted. On Sunday, we took exhaustion to a new level with a 7-hour deep cleaning of the volunteer house followed by a harried run to NongKhai for down-to-the-wire Secret Buddy gift buying. I was surprised that we all made it through dinner without falling asleep.
- Baked french fries
- Cucumbers with lime juice
- Kale and onion omelette
It doesn’t make much sense, but neither were we at that moment!
My birthday finished, obviously it was time for my Christmas existential crisis.
Last year’s crisis centered mostly around the new focus on simplicity. Having left my usual surroundings, I faced the realities of my own relationship with gift giving and holiday stress. An inordinate level of internal disquiet for a country with low expectations for gift giving, but a high expectation of everyday kindness. I had room to explore my materialism through questions like...
- What defines the perfect gift?
- Why am I giving this gift?
Obligation? To indicate that I care? Because my ego needs a thank you? Most gifts include more than one of these motivations, but it helped to see which was primary. I also found it helpful to reflect on the patterns that I fall into.
After all my learning and growth of last year, it was refreshing to immediately lock step into my old pattern! However, I feel that I more quickly recognized when I started down that misguided path, and was able to step out of it.
After the singing and dancing were finished at the Outreach Christmas Party; lunch time. As a volunteer, there is an expectation that we will eat lunch with guests and other English speakers. As an introvert, entertaining and making small talk with strangers is difficult for me, but sharing our experience is important for the project. The awkwardness is increased by the fact that our community members help prepare the table.
This year, a Belgian couple donated lunch for the entire 200+ people. I was delighted when they chose to delay eating until after they spent some time serving the food they purchased to the line of people. I cannot know their motivations, but I do know that I would have preferred to be doing the same or sitting with the patients or sitting on the floor with our community members.
As is typically the case, lunch conversation touched on thoughts about the poverty in the area, the many needs of the larger community, and some stories about specific individuals.
A Second Challenge.
Because I have learned more about the dynamics of volunteer and charity work, stories about specific individuals carry more weight this year. That weight is magnified when they are the stories of people I know. The stories of many of these lives are sensational; there is sometimes a level of tragedy that most people are unfamiliar with.
I understand that there is a fundraising aspect to having visitors at these events and emotional stories do help with that. The complexity of navigating these conversations is difficult to explain. I know that I try to do my best, but have likely failed at many times.
I guess I just want to vent because it is hard for me to hear individual lives being distilled down to a series of unimaginable tragedies, and the takeaway being something like "they are so brave and I am so lucky." The truth is that they are brave, but they also have no choice in the tragedy. We all survive through the tragedies we are dealt or we don't. The bravery is not in the tragedy or the survival, but how we live after.
Lives that include unimaginable tragedy do not have to be defined by that tragedy, nor are they for most of the people I see on a regular basis. I am not upset with the people who hear the stories and are not equipped to understand the complexity, but I do aspire to find better ways to explain, understand, talk about, and contextualize these complex realities.
My Christmas Story.
After lunch, Santa returns to his chair and hands out gifts like heavy blankets to parents and small toys to the children. I was volunteered to take some pictures with Santa’s camera. As I sat there, I had the good fortune to sit quietly and watch people as they stood up from kneeling while accepting Santa’s gift.
I interpreted such a range of emotions from different people.
- Some people looked to have a reserved joy that had them at the brink of tears.
- Other people winced in pain and looked relieved to have just made it back to standing.
- Some mothers were distracted by attempts to control their children.
- Still others looked a little embarrassed by the whole experience.
My time on the floor was a gift as I was able to reflect on the many different experiences of Christmas that were happening. People happy to receive a warm blanket juxtaposed against the selfish stress I impose on myself around gift buying. The election also took me back to the Christmas of 2008 or 2009 when I was jobless and hand-wrote cards trying to express what each of my family members meant to me and telling them I loved and appreciated them. I don’t know if it was a ‘good' gift or not; I remember it was a painful time for me. I hope that I will feel differently if I am in that position again. I never seem to regret telling people in my life how much and why I love them.
Nowadays I aspire to gift giving that recognizes I have no control over how they are received or interpreted. As I continue to aspire to a more simple life, I hope to give gifts that add value to the lives of my loved ones or create space for shared experiences and more time together. I expect the most important people in my life would choose quality time over lavish gifts that require additional work hours and time apart by proxy.
Maybe next Christmas season will bring a new epiphany, but I am pretty happy with my insights and this experience of the season. Hopefully I can remember it next year.
I hope you all have a safe and wonderful Christmas season or enjoy any holiday you may celebrate this time of year. Lots of love from Thailand!