A Festivus for the Rest of Us

December 23 is Festivus!  We first learned of the annual holiday of Festivus on an episode of Seinfeld that aired December 18, 1997.  I have two simple rules by which I live, which I’ve shared with friends and mental health professionals.  One is never to eat blue food.  There is nothing edible in nature that is blue — people often ask about blueberries, with an annoying, self-satisfied “gotcha” tone, but everyone knows those are actually purple.  The other is that for every question, every concern, every ineffable and inscrutable mystery of life there is a Seinfeld episode.  I understand that as rules to live by go, these are among the stranger ones, but they have served me well thus far in my 54 years of life.

Seinfeld Festivus pole

(l-r) George Costanza, Frank Costanza (holding the Festivus pole), Kramer, and Jerry

Festivus, and its traditions, seems fitting in this year of a pandemic and lockdowns and political uncertainty and social/racial upheaval.  Of course, the brightly lit and decorated Christmas tree is replaced with the Festivus pole (as seen above), around which we gather for the "airing of grievances," where you tell the people in your life how they disappointed you.

While there is light at the end of the very dark tunnel of 2020 with vaccinations underway and new leadership in Washington in the offing, it is hard to think of the past year as anything but a string of profound disappointments.  I have friends from Oakland and Castro Valley in Northern California who have made, then cancelled, plans to come to Palm Springs for a visit — twice.  I really want to see them.  I can’t remember the last time I went out for Sunday Brunch and a Bloody Mary with my good friend Richard, took in a play staged by the local gay theater troupe DEZART PERFORMS, or just whizzed over on my power-chair to the Palo Verde Garden Center two blocks from my home to talk gardening with Taylor and Miguel.  I’ve wanted to visit my mother who is turning 90 for months, but dare not travel.  My dog nearly died after eating something poisonous to dogs carelessly tossed aside in the park.  And I began experiencing cerebrovascular ischemia (a condition in which a blockage in an artery restricts the delivery of oxygen-rich blood to the brain, resulting in damage to brain tissue) which feels like someone is hammering a rusty nail into the side of your head.  I will be happy to put this year behind me.

Palo Verde Garden Center

"If there ever was a year that warranted celebrating Festivus, 2020 is it," said Guy Winch, who co-hosts the Dear Therapists Podcast with Lori Gottlieb and invites you to listen-in on their personal, raw, transformative sessions, where they offer life hacks, share insights, and bring people back to find out what worked and what didn’t.  There is a lot that can be learned through observing the tragedies of others.

Wow!  Hold on there — I hear you saying.  Why trot out and dwell on the negative?  Well, author Donald Robertson points out that ‘negative' thinking could be better than the well-known ‘positive’ thinking with which we are familiar:

Recent psychological research tends to show that people who are able to accept unpleasant thoughts and feelings, without being overwhelmed by them, are more resilient than people who try to distract themselves or avoid such experiences, through strategies such as positive thinking.

And he’s not alone in that conclusion.  The Stoics (capital ’S’ from the Greek school of philosophy, not the small ’s’ stoics who don’t cry when someone rolls over their puppy with a Buick) used a visualization exercise they referred to as premeditatio malorum (which literally means "foreseeing bad stuff") to train themselves to be able to stay calm and free from emotional suffering in the face of adversity.  Modern Stoic author William Irvine called this resilience training "negative visualization.”

In chapter 4 of his book, A Guide to the Good Life:  The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, he begins by introducing the well know problem of hedonic adaptation, the empirical fact that people get used to what they have and begin to appreciate it less:

The psychologists Shane Frederick and George Loewenstein have studied this phenomenon and given it a name: hedonic adaptation. To illustrate the adaptation process, they point to studies of lottery winners. Winning a lottery typically allows someone to live the life of his dreams. It turns out, though, that after an initial period of exhilaration, lottery winners end up about as happy as they previously were. … Another, less dramatic form of hedonic adaptation takes place when we make consumer purchases. Initially, we delight in the wide-screen television or fine leather handbag we bought. After a time, though, we come to despise them and find ourselves longing for an even wider-screen television or an even more extravagant handbag. Likewise, we experience hedonic adaptation in our career.

He then presents the Stoic solution to the problem:

The Stoics thought they had an answer to this question. They recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we value— that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job. Doing this, the Stoics thought, will make us value our wife, our car, and our job more than we otherwise would. This technique — let us refer to it as negative visualization — was employed by the Stoics at least as far back as Chrysippus.

In my study of this ancient Greek philosophy, I soon learned the difference between contemplating something bad and worrying about it; contemplation is an intellectual exercise, and it is possible to conduct such seemingly-glum exercises without it affecting one's emotions.  It is possible, for example, for a meteorologist to spend her days contemplating the death and destruction wrought by tornadoes without living in fear of being killed by one.  In a similar fashion, it is possible for a Stoic to contemplate bad things without becoming pessimistic or anxiety-ridden as a result.  Again, turning to Irvine:

By contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity that would otherwise be absent. We will no longer sleepwalk through our life. Some people, I realize, will find it depressing or even morbid to contemplate impermanence. I am nevertheless convinced that the only way we can be truly alive is if we make it our business periodically to entertain such thoughts.

I’ve written many times about how almost losing my life in the winter of 2006-07 made me appreciate it all the more.  Unbeknownst to me, I was experiencing this Stoic principle, though I did not have a name for it back then.  Today, I force myself to consider that everything I have is “borrowed,” and I may be asked to give it back at any moment — this includes tangible, material things like the hand-painted Oaxacan jar (below) I bought myself as a Christmas present, and intangible things like the good mood I am in at the very moment I’m typing this.

My Christmas present to myself — covered pottery jar (center)…
black with white flowers and green leaves, handcrafted and painted by Mayólica Santa Rosa, imported from Oaxaca Mexico

For those really wanting to get into the true spirit of Festivus, the airing of grievances around the pole is followed by the "feats of strength” — wherein you wrestle everyone around you and literally pin them down.  This is obviously not a good idea given social distancing requirements in place this holiday season, or if you expect one of them to cook you dinner later, but it could be a symbolic way to overcome your 2020 disappointments.

Copyright © 2021 matthewwilkinson.net — all rights reserved.