By Kellie Schorr
In the Deep Midwinter is a four week series on the Four Immeasurables as a Buddhist meditation in the tradition of Advent, a Christian season of introspection the weeks prior to Christmas.
I know it ages me, but I have to admit—A Charlie Brown Christmas and I were born in the same year.
Over the hills and through the seasons of the last 53 holidays, I’ve watched Snoopy skate like a winter dream, Lucy try and fail to gain Schroeder’s attention with her bossy bangs and tin ear, Linus explain the Christmas story in simple majesty, and a tragic tree with bad posture transform into glory with a little care. The thing that always amazes me, beside Vince Guaraldi’s flawless jazz, is the message that gets hammered home in this show over, and over and over is:
“Christmas is too commercial.”
We’ve been saying this for 53 years (maybe more)! It seems like I heard it just yesterday, but actually, it was today. Standing in line at the bank I heard a conversation between the teller and a customer.
“Are you ready for Christmas?” The customer chirped.
“I’m all about Christmas, but I really don’t like it very much,” the teller responded.
“I hear you,” the customer replied, not hearing her at all.
“I’ve got one child who isn’t old enough to understand anything but we’re spending a fortune on him and another old enough to ask for everything she sees. I was this close to deciding no gifts for anyone this year, but who am I kidding? That would never fly.”
“It’s almost over,” the customer consoled and walked away.
I waited for a moment to see if Linus, or a kindly UPS man carrying a blanket, would magically appear and tell us the Christmas story once again, but alas, my deposit was processed and I was out the door before the spotlight came on. We were left with a nearly universal feeling. No matter what your practice or story is this holiday season, Charlie Brown was right. Christmas has gotten too hectic, too tiring, too expensive, too…well…too much.
It’s not really the presents we buy, wrap, and open that are the problem. It’s the gifts scattered all around us that we step over, bat away, and refuse to see that cause our grouchy mid-winter longing for something simple, beautiful and sustaining.
Chief among those is the 3rd of Buddhism’s Four Immeasurables—Mudita, often translated as “Sympathetic Joy.”
Sympathetic joy is the ability to rejoice in the happiness of others. It’s more than wanting others to be happy. It is the actual happiness we feel when someone else is happy. Think of the joy a parent experiences when their child hits the ball in T-ball and shrieks with delight, or the elation a teacher gets when a student who has worked long and hard brings in a college acceptance letter—that’s Mudita.
An antidote to envy, self-centeredness, and division, the joy of someone’s joy can transform the most raggedy, exhausted attitude into a glowing, glorious smile.
In the Christian Advent tradition, the “day of joy” is a spoiler of sorts.
Through a long dark season filled with contemplation and waiting, the day of joy pops up to say, “It’s gonna be okay. There’s something amazing coming, and we know how the story ends.” In Buddhism’s Four Immeasurables, sympathetic joy is our way of understanding that joy isn’t coming—it’s already here, and if you don’t feel it in your life right now, look around because someone has it in theirs and that means you can have it too.
Both traditions align at a central point; this joy, whether we think of it as arriving or already present, isn’t just for us. It’s for everyone. We have been given happiness so we can give it to each other. We receive happiness when we feel it for each other.
I know, I know…It’s easy for a parent to feel a child’s joy, or a teacher to celebrate a student’s accomplishment because there’s a relationship there, but what about other people? What about people who have it easier than we do, seem to have it better than we do, or just don’t have the bad memories we do? How do I feel joy for them? Same answer: there’s a relationship there.
Sympathetic joy serves to remind us of one of the basic tenets of Buddhism—we are all connected to one another (even when we don’t realize it or like it).
As many a teacher has said:
“We may all be unique waves upon the ocean, but there is never a time when a wave stops being part of the ocean, and never a moment when the ocean stops being part of the wave.”
We are all in this together. The energy and beauty of every wave is part of our wave too. When we extend our reach beyond those in our closest circles until we can truly celebrate the joy of all beings, we will discover the true gift of this holiday and every day is the gift of each other.
“I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”
Linus Van Pelt, A Charlie Brown Christmas
Editor: Dana Gornall
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