The “holiday blues” are upon us. Dwindling daylight hours can be partly to blame. However, a blue funk can also be due to families expressing grief in ill-advised ways. This creates an unbearable burden. We feel it when visiting family over the holidays.
I began to feel the blues in my late teens. I went away for school, returning home for the holidays. Back home, I’d often slip into a blue funk. It took a while to realize my blues were mostly rooted in my relationship with my dad.
My dad was a good man. First in his family to go to college, he earned a PhD from the University of Michigan in industrial engineering. Dad envisioned at least one of his boys becoming engineers. When the eldest son evidenced no interest, his attention turned to me. I became the golden boy. Dad hoped I would play football at U-M. He donated a video recorder to my high school so recruiters could review game film. He introduced me to Michigan coaches. But I was injured the first game of my senior season. My season was shot. Then the basketball coach, discovering the new video machine, recorded his practices, erasing my junior year tapes. That took Michigan out of the picture.
My coach still recommended me and I landed a scholarship at Western Michigan. My folks came to many games but my father’s face spoke of disappointment. I had no interest in engineering, majoring in history and philosophy, what he called “the soft sciences.” Dad imagined I’d go to grad school – Cornell. To his disappointment, I became a Christian and, after college, joined Campus Crusade. Not exactly Cornell. Dad was further disappointed to learn I had to raise my financial support. Assigned to Louisiana State University, I felt his disappointment when he introduced me to his friends. “Mike’s working at LSU.” They thought I was a professor at LSU. Not true.
Over the next 15 years my dad and I drifted apart. He was indifferent while I was insecure, out to prove I was a difference maker. After marrying Kathy, she noticed I often went into a tailspin when visiting my folks. Over time I began to learn I was shouldering the unbearable burden – disappointment. It’s crushing to the human soul.
Disappoint is verb with a prefix: dis + appoint. Appoint is determining what will happen. Disappointment is feeling what we deemed would happen didn’t happen. “The Baltimore Orioles were disappointing” is feeling they failed to win as many games as you deemed they would. The only problem is no human being can see the future. As James warns, “You do not know what your life will be like tomorrow” (4:14). Disappointment is presuming to see the future. Only God can do that, and he’s never disappointed.
Scripture never describes God as being disappointed. When things don’t turn out as he hopes, scripture describes him as grieving. The Father was “grieved in his heart” when he “saw the wickedness of man was great on the earth” (Gen. 6:6). Jesus was grieved over the hardness of the Pharisees’ heart (Mark 3:5). The Spirit is grieved when we speak unwholesome words (Eph. 4:30). This kind of grief feels loss without losing hope. It holds on to hope. A second type of grief doesn’t.
The Apostle Paul imagines two kinds of grief in his letter to the Thessalonians. Many were disappointed that fellow believers had died before Christ returned. They feared these Christians were goners. Paul said this is what people apart from Christ feel – grief with “no hope” (I Thess. 4:13). The Thessalonians ought to grieve with hope. Grief with hope is critical, as Paul would later write, “hope does not disappoint” (Rom. 5:5).
Good grief feels loss but doesn’t lose hope. It doesn’t convey disappointment. For parents, this comes into play as kids pass through the age of accountability, around seven. As emerging adults, they begin to spread their wings. Parents often don’t like what transpires and express disappointment in all sorts of subtle ways. Only a small percentage of communication involves actual words. Almost 90 percent is visual (body language, eye contact) and vocal (pitch, speed, volume, tone of voice). Parents convey disappointment with a resigned sigh, rolling the eyes in disbelief, or disinterest. These signals crush the human spirit. They create insecure youth who become insecure adults.
I meet these insecure adults all the time. They have their knickers in a knot over all sorts of things – money, success, fame. I know – for many years I was one of them (might still be). They’re highly successful but high-strung – stress carriers saddled with an unbearable burden of trying to earn their father’s blessing. In my case, I was out to “prove” to my dad that I wasn’t a disappointment. I wanted him to see me as a success. This proved to be an unbearable burden, creating stress when I was with my family.
Kathy has helped me unload some of this. She’s been my best friend, helping me recognize that my father’s blessing might never materialize. The better path is taking responsibility. A few years back I began regularly calling my folks. It reestablished a relationship with my dad. It wasn’t warm, but it was progress. When he was dying of cancer, I made the trip to Florida to see him. Save for one grandson, no one else visited dad. I don’t blame my family. I sense that many felt they had disappointed dad.
A few years later, in an unanticipated turn of events, a wise sage gave me a father’s blessing. The details are less important than the relief that followed. The unbearable burden began to lift. I am now learning about genuine hope. It recognizes that while we cannot see how things will work out, we can trust who works all things for good.
Good grief also recognizes that we can see two appointed events – we’re going to die and we’re going to be judged. “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). That’s why good grief and genuine hope are signals of transcendence, pointers toward God and eternity. So are the holidays – holy days. If you’re experiencing the holiday blues, consider whether they’re rooted in the unbearable burden. Then ask God and friends to help you unsaddle this intolerable load.
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