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Column: For many this Christmas, loneliness will turn the minutes into hours

It has been a brutal, punishing year for many people across this country. As we enter a new year, let’s focus on one another again and take the responsibility to lead others through this darkness and out the other side, writes Gareth O’Callaghan.

Gareth O’Callaghan

“ARE YOU ALL SORTED?” I was asked this morning in a local shop. It’s a question I have been asked at least once a day for almost a fortnight now. It’s a polite way for people who don’t know you too well of asking whether you have all your presents and ‘bits n pieces’ sorted and wrapped for Christmas. “What are you doing for Christmas this year?” is another question I have fumbled awkwardly with to answer.

“No,” is the answer to the first question. My response to the second is different.

What I am doing for Christmas this year? This year I’d like to think that I will listen more that I have before. By listening, maybe I will eventually discover what Christmas has lost along the way for me and, more importantly, why it has lost its true meaning.

Christmas has changed radically. Whatever it used to be when I was growing up as a young boy no longer exists. And they are not the words of a grumpy youngishly-older man longing for his past. I try to live in the moment. I have no choice but to.

A sense of belonging

For me, Christmas lacks something important, and maybe that missing ingredient is the essence of spirit. For as long as I can remember Christmas always had a sense of majesty and other-worldliness about it. It was a sacred time, but not just for what might be regarded as its obvious ancient religious connections. Christmas always brought with it a frisson of energy, an atmosphere that took on a life of its own once the 8th of December had arrived. It was as if Steven Spielberg had got his hands on it and worked his magic. For three weeks after that I was swept along on this invisible mystery tour. It had nothing to do with commercialism, believe me.

Life in our house was simple, but the love I felt around me far outweighed what other kids on my road got from Santa. My most memorable presents from Santa were a stainless steel blue and white dumper truck and a giant box of Lego. The greater satisfaction came from just being a part of what was a magical season. The magic came from a sense of belonging. And this ‘belonging’, sadly, is the essence that has gone missing.

There’s a powerful line in Gordon Lightfoot’s epic song, ‘The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald’, which I always remember at this time of the year:

Does anyone know where the love of God goes, when the waves turn the minutes to hours?

Anyone who remembers the plaintive lyrics of the song will know that the mighty ship sank in a Lake Superior storm in 1975. There were no survivors despite the hopes and prayers of all of the 29 crew members on board that their lives might be spared.

Comfort in the silent moments

For many this Christmas, the waves of loneliness and hopelessness will turn the minutes into hours. I used to be a big fan of Christmas, with all the lights, the music, the gifts, the parties, and the anticipation; mostly it was the anticipation. For me there was always a feeling of coming home to a celebration. It was based on the year that had gone before. It was a time to feel satisfied with twelve months of hard work behind you, and the knowledge that the next twelve would be equally satisfying.

The greatest comfort came from knowing that I wouldn’t be spending it alone. I ‘belonged’ to the community of Christmas, and within that belonging I lived out a true celebration of what it means to be loved by, and to love, others who threaded the previous twelve months of my life together with their connections to me and mine to them.

It was a celebration of what was really important, namely the joy of living which for me culminated not only in the magic of watching my daughters’ excitement as they realised that Santa had brought them what they had asked for on Christmas morning, but also in their wondrous curiosity about the birth of a tiny baby boy in a remote country thousands of miles away.

I still love Christmas, but for different reasons at this time in my life. I have found a new belonging; but it doesn’t acknowledge the commerce or the hype that dominate and dictate this week. I have found it in the silent moments that offer real insights into what this season is all about.

For many, it has been a brutal year

This Christmas is different. It’s one that so many will want to forget, but oddly one that so many of us will remember for the rest of our lives. It has been a brutal, punishing year and it is culminating now in a festival that few can afford and even fewer have looked forward to. In the Gordon Lightfoot song, if I were to replace the word “waves’ with any of the following words: depression, anxiety, stress, homelessness, bereavement, separation, unemployment – the list goes on and on – then the words of the song become more relevant in the context of this year than it ever has been in the past.

For so many people the next two weeks will be a survival ordeal, literally. There are many individuals who are asking the question, “Will I live through this?” Or to rephrase their question, “Do I want to live through this?” Depression is rampant. Suicide is sadly almost as commonly talked about as the winter chest infection. Politics, and its politicians, have fragmented our society by failing to see what is really required from them: true leadership. Of course it’s ridiculous to blame politicians for the loss of something far greater than they will ever understand.

But without someone to lead the way forward there can be no sense of belonging; and if we don’t feel we belong to something much greater that is capable of lifting the pain of whatever it is that we are going through – this invisible pain that is so excruciating it is slowly eating away at the core of our being – then the flame of hope dies.

There’s no sense anymore looking to politicians hoping that they can give us the hope we need to survive. They can’t so we don’t.

Forget politics – it will never save the spirit

It is not always easy to save the life of someone who has lost their direction, someone who feels that there’s nothing left to do with their life but to end it all. But it is more likely that this life will be saved if we have the strength to reach out and give them a sense of belonging. Without that sense of belonging, nothing survives.

It becomes easier once we realise that all they need in order to go on living is a belief in what they belong to, which will sustain them and give them ground to put down fresh roots and start anew. And maybe that is what 2014 should be about. Forget politics – it will never save the spirit; and without the spirit life is lost.

Let’s focus on each other for a change. Let’s take the responsibility to lead others through this darkness and out the other side. This year I did something I haven’t done for years. I sent a few Christmas cards to individuals I knew were having a very rough time. I chose a few careful words to write on each card, and then I posted them. Something as simple as a Christmas card can save a life, especially when the person you send it to is not expecting to read the words they might need to hear in their hearts. Maybe these words might give them the sense of belonging they need to feel deep within themselves that life is worth living.

In a recent interview for TV3’s ‘Time To Talk’ week on Ireland AM, which covered a number of important mental health issues and featured a number of well-known people chatting about their own personal experiences with depression, I mentioned something that seemed to resonate with many people: Always remember there is someone who is thinking of you always… someone somewhere… someone who loves you… always.

From a sense of belonging deep in my heart and from the true essence of the real spirit of this season, whatever you would like that to be, I wish you a Happy Christmas and a bright new year that brings with it a sense of true hope and belonging. Happy Christmas.

Gareth O’Callaghan is the author of ‘A Day Called Hope’. He has just finished writing a new book which is due to be published in 2014.

Read: Christmas pressures cause spike in demand for mental health services

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Gareth O’Callaghan

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