Christmas. The Land of Expections or The Land of Possibilities?

 In the children’s classic book, the Phantom Tollbooth, the hero Milo, receives a surprising gift, a game that includes a tollbooth, toll fare, a map, a car, and a rulebook.  Not knowing what else to do, Milo assembles his gift and heads through the tollbooth and arrives promptly in the Land of Expectations, where he gets stuck by what he expects.

Most of us, this time of year, head through the gateway of Thanksgiving and arrive, just as Milo did, in the Land of Expectations.

The holiday stretch of the Land of Expectations Expressway is a bright, festive place marked extravagantly with huge billboards flashing colored lights and singing destinations you can expect if all goes well.

“Happiest time of year!” says one.

“Times You Will Always Remember!” says another.

“Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.  It’s the best time of the year.”

“Heart-melting family moments.”

“Joyful, giddy children.”

“Winter wonderland romance.”

“Perfect life changing gifts.”

In order be helpful, other signs provide directions on how to get to those destinations.

“Buy gifts.”

“Make gifts.”

“Send cards.”

“Attend plays and concerts.”

“Simplify and focus on your values.”

“See more friends.”

“Go to more parties.”

“Have a party!”

“Stay at home.”

“Bake more.”

“Bake less.”

“Give more away.”


“Enjoy more.”

“Love more.”

“Work harder!  You can do it all.”


Our heads whirl this way and that as we listen and read the Expectations and directions, so caught up in all the Christmas music and all the color, that we, frequently, as Milo often does in the Phantom Tollbooth, get disoriented and don’t pay complete attention.

We don’t notice the pile of cars that has skidded off into the pit marked Disappointment.

Or the large broken down building with peeling paint, cracked windows and mold on the roof called the Exhaustion Hotel.

Or the two lane, crowded exit to Disillusionment.

Or the exit to Escape, littered with rum bottles and tickets to Hawaii.

Or the fog shrouded exit leading straight to Depression.

Or we don’t notice these the until after grasping at some moment of perfect happiness we can’t quite seize, we lose our balance and find ourselves skidding into a ditch or down an exit we didn’t quite plan on.

In the Land of Expectations things can go easily wrong and usually do.

We decided to simplify this year and make all our gifts but after screaming at the sewing machine for the third time in one afternoon wonder why making gifts is considered “simple.”

We walk through Macy’s or frantically click through pages on, and know again we cannot ever get our mother or aunt or father or child or grandchild the gift that will truly make them happy and filled with the knowledge that we love them.

Or after much struggle when we thought we had gotten them the perfect gift but on Christmas Day the person opens it, gives half smile, says a routine thank you and flips it into a pile.

Or we don’t have the money to buy the gifts we want to buy for those we love the most, and we feel worthless.

We want to go to a concert and movie and realize no one has time for us and wonder if anyone ever does.

Or our child informs us they won’t be able to see us this year because they have to work, or it costs too much, or they are going to be with their significant other’s family.

Or we remember just how awful Christmas Day was last year – with our uncle repeating the same three war stories, a father or mother or cousin or child who got drunk and belligerent, and children who never said thank you and got sullen when required to sit at the table for dinner.

Or someone dies or is diagnosed with a fatal illness.

Or we desperately miss someone who died recently or we are in pain from divorce, job loss, broken relationships of other kinds, and just can’t bear anything cheerful.

Christmas, the signs in the Land of Expectation remind us, should be about love, happiness, enjoyment, warm and happy relationships, and instead sometimes we feel irritated, exhausted, overwhelmed, unworthy, and heartbroken.



Life is suffering, the Buddha taught.

We know all of us will suffer through illnesses, grief, betrayals and death.

According to Buddhist there are other kinds of suffering too.  Smaller kinds of suffering, like we set out to make dinner, expecting to eat something nutritious and tasty in 45 minutes and then we burn it, and thus suffer from disappointment and embarrassment.

Or we might suffer after having a great day with our child to only have it end in an argument.  We suffer because we are grieving that those moments we so enjoyed are gone and wonder how things fell apart.

The Buddha taught that suffering is caused by attachment or more accurately by craving something or clinging to something.

We suffer because we desire or crave certain objects or futures or emotions.  However, we discover that when we achieve what we desire that the satisfaction of getting what we want is only temporary.

We suffer because we all have beliefs, desires, cravings, expectations about how our lives will or should be, but then those wants don’t come pass.

Life is not controllable, the Buddha taught.  The world and people are not perfect or meant to do our bidding.  We can’t make the world as we want it to be.

However, humans are born with wanting minds, so we want, we crave, we desire, and we suffer.


Through the lens of Buddhist conception of suffering, the American Christmas season couldn’t be set up more perfectly to cause suffering.

The whole tradition is about craving and desiring.

We desire gifts and joyful experiences.

We crave food and perfect loving moments.

We desire feelings of peace and joy and serenity.

We want fun and happy experiences.

We crave the pleasure of giving a gift that causes a smile or hoot of surprise.

We desire receiving a perfect gift, something we have been wanting or that shows the giver truly knows and appreciates us.


The season builds anticipation and intensity of desire.

We wait for visitors, gifts, parties, vacations, and family gatherings.

We prepare for them by imagining how we want them to be.  We imagine them perfect, how we think they should be, and we work for that perfection.

We are promised in songs and advertisements, by the Protestant work ethic and our own expectations, that if we work hard and do everything right – a wondrous, delightful, loving, holy Christmas season will be ours.   We learn to expect it.

And those who don’t expect it, most not at peace with the holiday, but are disillusioned, withdrawn, cynical, bitter, because once they did expect it, and they never experienced that holiday joy.

An expectation is a want or desire or craving or clinging, solidified.  It is a craving with a should attached.  We want Christmas to be fun.  Everyone says it is fun.  It should be fun.  We expect it to be fun.

An expectation is an idea about what the future will or should hold.


However, the future is unknowable.  We can’t control it or make things come out the way we want

When it comes to so many of the holiday expectations, well, they are fantasy:  Perfection; wonderful moments that last on and on and on; people who can meet our expectations all the time.  None of these things exist.


I, for one, have been battered on the Holiday Land of Expectation Freeway. I’ve taken every exit.  I’ve been in lots of wrecks with other people’s expectations.  I’ve spent a good deal of time in the Exhaustion Hotel.

I keep going back though because I fundamentally believe that a holiday that puts love at the center through gatherings and gift giving, has lots of music, and contemplates the meaning of hope and care and love is a good thing.  Battered or not, each year, I sing along with the songs, watch the flashing lights, peer at the directions, sincerely believing if I just get the right map and do Christmas right, I can have perfect loving, joyful, fun season.


Which, it turns out, according the Buddhists, is just wrong.

If I desire peace and love, I have to be peace and love and the only way to do that is to give up expectations altogether, including the expectation for love and peace.

Expectations make us work hard.  They make us try to control things we can’t control, and the outcome more often than not is anger, judgment and disappointment.

So what is the other way?  The Buddhists say the road to life without suffering is possible by following the eightfold path.  They admit the way is hard and that it can take several life times to find that peace.

So it seems likely that most of us aren’t to reach that state this Christmas or anytime soon.  However, there are things we can do to lighten the load and find a new road far from the Land of Expectations.

First, Notice your Expectations.

This is especially true if you often find yourself during the Holidays in Disillusionment or Depression or Exhaustion or in car wreck with other people’s expectation.

So consider.  What do you expect during the holidays?  What did you expect in the past that went badly?  What do you expect from yourself? From others?  Are they possible?  Can you let them go?  How might you do that?


Second, Forgive.

Forgive yourself for all the times you didn’t live up to your own expectations.  Forgive yourself for not living up to the expectations of others.   Consider forgiving those who didn’t and couldn’t meet your expectations, who let you down and hurt you.  This is difficult.  But it is an important step to get the ghosts of Christmas past to stop haunting you, and let you live in the present.


Third, Be Mindful


Mindfulness is the act of being completely present in the moment.

Mindfulness is tasting each bite of food and appreciating it.

It is watching the sunset with your full being.

It is feeling each foot as it touches the ground.

Mindfulness is wickedly difficult.

The human brain likes to flit around.  It likes to think about next week, worry about work or the family or the state of the world, or make plans for what will happen five minutes or five years from now.  The human mind does not like to stay put.

However, spiritual gurus through the ages have taught that when the mind is in the present we are free from craving, clinging, and expectations.  We are free to be truly alive.

Meditation is a way to practice mindfulness.  A meditator sits and watches her mind’s antics until she learn its tricks and so is more able to stay in present moment in her daily life.


Fourth, Accept What Is.

Acceptance of what is true about the world and ourselves is frequently an outcome of mindfulness or other spiritual practices.  At any time though we can pay attention to the ways we do or do not accept what is actually happening in our lives. One way we suffer is to want our experience to be different than it is.  So for example we may have a difficult situation at work right before what is to be a fun Christmas outing, so we try and talk ourselves out of being irritated or hurt.  When we are not successful, we become even angrier with ourselves for not getting over our bad mood or mad at the people that caused the difficult situation, so we get in even a worse mood.  We are better off if we just accepted that we are upset, go on the outing, and see what happens.  If our lives are crumbling from death, divorce and other tragedies, it’s OK to let our grief be, and join the holiday festivities as we are:  sad, angry, wistful.


Fifth, Live into the Possibilities.

“Possibilities,” writes Phillip Moffitt, one of the teachers at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, “are based in the present moment, where you are alive to the mystery of life.”    Instead of trying to pound the future into a predetermined mold to fit our expectations, we are mindful of what is actually happening and then use our imaginations to help create the next moment.

Consider, for example a Christmas meal.

We want it to be perfect with delicious food and fun conversation.   In the Land of Expectations we have ideas about what that looks like specifically – what sorts of food will be served and how people will behave at the dinner table.  If we make a mistake and leave something in the oven too long or forget an ingredient, at best we are disappointed, at worst we berate ourselves for not doing better.  Already the event has a pall of anxiety and stress over it.


So what if after Thanksgiving instead of finding ourselves smack in the middle of the Expectations Expressway, we found ourselves in the Villages of Possibilities?

The bustling town square, thick with trees is surrounded with modest buildings, paths that meander into the darkness and just two signs.

Pay Attention, says one.

Be Loving, says the other.

The trees are heavy with Life Happenings.

People pick them off or they drop suddenly on their heads.

They open them and show the Life Happenings to each other.

Some are good things – like delicious sugar cookies with fluffy green frosting, a perfect ski day with sun glinting on the snow, fun playing board games with a child.  Some are difficult things – no money, a family fight, a work crisis, an illness.

The people consider together and gaze around the square at the buildings and paths.  It is all Possibilities.

They could sit on one of the Just Being Benches.

Or party at the Laugh Out Loud Dance Studio.

Or go to Grove for a Good Cry.

They could head down the path toward “It’s a Surprise!” Christmas Tree Forest.

Or spend a night at the Forgiveness Hotel where they conveniently offer a two-for-one dinner special or free dessert for those who come alone.

Maybe the best thing would be visit the Love Yourself Spa with treatments for Every Mood.

Or to head to the Creativity Mall where people can pick up a bit of Imagination or Ways You Haven’t Dreamed of Yet or Wonderful Ideas in a Box.

Life Happens.  Those Happenings fall from the tree startling us or we reach up and grab them.

But after that, all is Possibilities.

There are only two signs.  Two clear directions.

Pay Attention.

Be Loving.

But for those who stop for a moment, pausing in the cold crisp night air, and look to the east, they can see a bright burning star and below it the words,

Merry Christmas.

Peace on Earth.

To all Goodwill.



Look East.

Follow the Star.

You can see it from the Village of Possibilities.

May there you find your own Christmas. Your own Peace. Your own Goodwill.