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I was in a busy shopping mall over the weekend and carols were ringing, booming down through the spectacularly shiny stars and golden ornaments hanging from every rafter, urging the masses to buy, buy, buy. Every inch of space was filled with frantic shoppers hoping to find just the right gift for everyone on their list and maybe something for themselves as well. Peace on earth was miles away and stress was running high.

I spotted a young boy, about 4 years, old darting through the crowds followed by his parents who were trying to maneuver a stroller holding a wriggling toddler. The little boy clearly had all the wonder and excitement of the season. He just knew that Santa was coming soon and there would be special treats the elves had made just for him. The loud music and sparkling lights of the mall were all part of the magic since he had no list of relatives to buy for and no bills to pay.

Suddenly he took a spill and landed flat, bursting into tears. “You’re OK!” his dad announced. As the boy continued to cry, his toddler sibling soon joined in. “Give Anna a cookie” the mom snapped at the dad. “It’s OK Billy. You’re not hurt. Do you want a cookie?” Both parents frantically rifled through their giant bag looking for sweets. These parents were convinced that cookies were the magic thing that would fix whatever it was that brought her children’s tears.

Many of us often think that cookies are the thing that will take away the pain. We eat cookies (or cake, or potato chips) when we really want a hug but one isn’t offered and we don’t know how to ask.  We do all kinds of things to avoid uncomfortable feelings. We drink alcohol, watch television, shop, over exercize, over work, gossip, or focus on trying to fix someone else. This last one is usually motivated by an inability to tolerate our own discomfort about another person’s pain. Most of us have been fans of all of these activities at one time or another but I find that none of them really work in the long run.

Life is full of things that cause painful feelings. People we love hurt us or leave us or die and we feel intense sadness and grief. Sometimes we do things we know we shouldn’t and wish we hadn’t and feel embarrassment, guilt, or shame. When things don’t happen as we hoped or expected, we feel disappointment or anger. There is war and terrorism, pollution, starvation, and injustice in the world and we feel fear. When we can’t tolerate a feeling and engage in behaviors that we think will take the pain away, we often discover that we’ve only medicated or distracted ourselves from it for awhile. Those feelings lie in wait for the next time and they incubate and grow. And often, the very things we do to try to avoid the uncomfortable feelings only result in more pain: the guilt of a drunken spree; the shame and disgust of having finished the whole chocolate cake; the embarrassment and regret of hours wasted watching MTV or reruns of ER and Friends.

Many of us are afraid to feel the pain because we think it will be overwhelming and will never go away. But it does pass and we can stand it, especially if we can seek some support while having those feelings. Tolerating the discomfort and exploring what is truly there is the way of getting through it. Hugs from our loved ones can help a lot and usually just talking about what hurts can make it feel better.

Especially in this holiday season when so many uncomfortable feelings can surface, I wish for everyone all the love and support you need and so deserve to get through this time without polishing off all the Christmas cookies yourself!

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