Festivus as a Catalyst for Change

Festivus is the fictional holiday created by Frank Costanza on Seinfeld and celebrated on December 23rd. One of the centerpieces of Festivus is “the airing of grievances.” We laughed because, despite our best intentions, often our own holiday celebrations have as a centerpiece our grievances.

No, unlike in the fictitious Festivus, our own grievances are usually not ceremoniously spoken aloud. Instead we air them in our minds in the form of judgments—often in the form of mild thoughts of irritation or annoyance—directed against our family and friends who gather at our own celebrations. Although when we judge it seems that we are innocent and that others have robbed us of our holiday spirit and our peaceful state of mind, the wounds are 100% self-inflicted.

As we become aware of what we are doing, judgments of ourselves kick in. Despite our best of intentions to feel only love this holiday, judgments arise. “Oh no, here I go again. Haven’t I made progress at all?” we think as we internally resist and struggle. And, the more we judge our self, the more we resist, the more wounded we feel and the more our peace of mind vanishes.

Yes, as A Course in Miracles explains “the strain of constant judgment is virtually intolerable.” And as A Course in Miracles points out, our judgments are absurd:

In order to judge anything rightly, one would have to be fully aware of an inconceivably wide range of things; past, present and to come. One would have to recognize in advance all the effects of his judgments on everyone and everything involved in them in any way. And one would have to be certain there is no distortion in his perception, so that his judgment would be wholly fair to everyone on whom it rests now and in the future. Who is in a position to do this? Who except in grandiose fantasies would claim this for himself?

Not only are our judgments absurd, they are hypocritical. We begin our judgments by assuming that we have the best of intentions and that we are doing the best we can. We are entitled to our mistakes—but others are not. “They should do better,” we silently judge.

Why do we judge so easily and so routinely? Why do we go through periods where it seems like we are celebrating “the airing of grievances” every day?

There are several reasons. One reason is that we are unaware of the terrible price we pay for our judgments. We think that by judging others we have placed our judgments outside our self. Yet, despite a temporary satisfaction, there is no way to judge and not feel the hangover. Hugh Prather is his book Shining Through explained why:

Thoughts can’t separate themselves from the one who thinks them. That is why I will never succeed in [judging] other people. If I have a thought about them, they are within me; they are “mine.” What then do I wish to make of this piece of my mind? A garden or a slaughterhouse?

We also judge to maintain the boundaries of our identity. We are someone who likes this; who doesn’t like that. We believe that to be happy we need more of this and less of that. Of course, we think we are entitled to judge anyone and everything getting in the way of our “happiness.”

Finally, we judge what we are trying to get rid of, what we are not prepared to look at inside ourselves. We judge Uncle Harry for telling the same story for the 50th time, but we are really condemning our self for our own story that we have chanted silently in our head for the 500th time.

Yet, unlike Seinfeld’s Festivus, our own real-life Festivus can be a joyous holiday and a time of meaningful change. How could that possibly be?

When our judgments arise, we experience feelings that seem to confirm our judgments. We’re annoyed at Uncle Harry’s behavior, and we are certain that our annoyance is coming from Uncle Harry.

This is impossible. Uncle Harry didn’t place annoying thoughts in our head. We annoy ourselves with our judgments and then tried to blame Uncle Harry for our decision.

Our ideas about Uncle Harry never leave their source in our own mind. Understanding that turns Festivus into a time of meaningful change. We can use what we’re feeling to get back into what we have buried in our own mind. In other words, we can stop blaming Uncle Harry, and instead, realize that what we are experiencing “externally” is really going on in our own mind. Psychological suffering is internally generated.

Frank Costanza never understood that life is like a virtual reality machine: Our thinking is reflected back to us by our experience of the characters with which we share the stage. If Frank understood this, he would have smiled and laughed more.  Although Frank never did, this holiday season we can soften our hearts toward others and toward ourselves.

There is hope. If all our grievances are happening in our own mind, we can make another choice. We can become sick and tired of the terrible cost of judgment. At any time, we can choose again; and where a peaceful state of mind had vanished, it can now return.

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