The Stoic’s Guide to the Holidays

An ’emotional clam’ wishes he could take his own advice for enduring the festivities with loss.

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I could have been a holiday hall-of-famer. I had the stuff. Genetically, I combine the genial stoicism of Upper Midwest Protestants with the determined emotional micro-management of New England Catholics. As a very young boy, I discovered my one true calling: the never-ending quest for the approval of others. So, naturally, I became a comedian and revere R.E.M. and never send back food at restaurants.

But my unique set of skills never found better expression than during the year-end holiday season. Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Years are the World Series for an aspiring codependent. It’s a shared emotional story, after all, about the blessings of family and the virtue of returning home. When December rolls around, we set aside some of our individualism and express our gratitude in close concert with friends and loved ones. And what better partner could you want for those maneuvers than good old Matt Fisher: self-sacrificing to a fault and desperate for everyone just to have a good time.

I’m the one who made sure everyone’s favorite ornament got a prominent spot on the Christmas tree. I’m the one who kept my little sister Katie from opening the dollhouse furniture before she opened the dollhouse. After dinner, I marched around the house and blew my new kazoo in everyone’s faces until they laughed. In the DJ booth on New Year’s Eve 2004, I contrived that the stroke of midnight would coincide with the key change in Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer.” I paid attention. I added value.

But in the summer of 2010 Katie died in a car accident, and most everything’s been upside-down since then. Just as the holidays used to be my time to shine, now they seem to highlight every weird fracture and blindspot I’ve developed. That holiday story of a family reunited and all emotional needs fulfilled feels like a play that we don’t have quite enough actors for anymore. My personal disappointments and dissatisfactions stick out like sore thumbs.

Grief trips up all the holiday stories even as you’re desperately trying to re-tell them. You won’t be getting the one present you want more than anything in the world. Because not everyone in the family is coming home to celebrate, ever again. Any other time you’d cope with these troubles just as you’ve learned, but during the holidays, satisfaction and camaraderie are the first gifts we give each other and the emotions that we return to again and again. I’m still hammering away on the kazoo, but the song goes wrong again and again.

Still, we’re about to experience the holidays all the same, and you deserve to squeeze as much nog from this stone as possible. So here are some strategies I wish I could master:

How about just stay positive
The best practice would probably be to be thankful for everything you have, savor the time you get to share with friends and loved ones, and focus more on your blessings than your gripes. If you can pull it off, you’ll invalidate this entire piece and implicitly shame me for being so morose. Well worth it for a happy holiday.

Communicate your grief to those who love you and thereby achieve emotional connection
I want this to be a comprehensive list, so I’m including all ideas here no matter how outlandish. As a stoic, I find this strategy off-putting and strange, but if you find any success with it, consider visiting my neighborhood to share your story with me and my fellow emotional clams.

Mild-to-moderate substance abuse
Time-honored and self-explanatory.*

Clark Griswold

You don’t have to be the festivity crazed people pleaser.

Build yourself a fort
Especially if you find yourself on the road, it’s critical that you set aside some mistletoe-free space, both physical and emotional. Find some out-of-the-way spot that looks completely unusable for holiday celebration and return there as needed to read Agatha Christie novels. In fact, keep close at hand a plentiful supply of non-holiday media: the complete R.E.M. discography, a few James Ellroy books, the 1992 heist comedy “Sneakers,” and eight or nine issues of Motor Trend. These will be your refuge.

Find your DJ booth
There are plenty of ways to participate in and contribute to a holiday celebration that require very little emotional transparency. Be the cook! Or the dishwasher! Go outside and chop wood for three or four days! Remember: You owe it to no one to be the Clark Griswold all the time. Be the Audrey.

Text This Article To Me Next Weekend
I’ve internalized none of this advice: I will be shouting non-jokes and sweating through my ugly sweater.

*No heavy stuff, please.

Matt Fisher is a writer and comedian in Brooklyn. He’s written for stage, television and Twitter, which is quite an accomplishment for a stoic.

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