10 Lessons Sans Carols: #1 Stille Nacht

We’ve finally gotten to number one!

I had no idea when I started this series that writing ten posts about lessons learned from the Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year’s holidays would test me so much. The testing has enriched me, so I’m not complaining. I’ve learned a great deal about myself by processing the pile of pictures past perfect. Going even further, I’ve yanked the lenses right out of the snap-trappers taking those freeze-frames and I’ve discovered surprising convexings in the glass.

I know I have a skewed view of what happens: that glass is half-full versus half-empty thing. I’m not unusual. Psychologists say we all have distorted vision from trying to make sense of the senseless or trying to make sensible the nonsensical (and vice versa, for the Seussical). We’re hard-wired to be subjective; the flavor or bent of the subjectivity depends on the patterns of our experiences, especially those during our youth. They don’t call them our formative years for nothing.

Atavistic self-preservation keys our biochemistry to etch our memory banks in ways that drive our pursuit of pleasure and our prevention of pain. It’s why we chase the highs of love, success, or even invention, and why we reflexively jerk our hands far away from hot stoves or candles burning at both ends after we singe our skin the first go round. It’s also how our brains try to urge us to return to situations that make us feel loved and happy or to protect us from ever putting ourselves in the same kind of situations or places where severe emotional or physical pain first scarred us. Tiny cues like a song or a smell or a sound can trigger a host of positive or negative “symptoms,” depending on our first experiences of them.

It’s why real estate agents find ways to infuse the air of a for sale house with scents like apple pie or oatmeal raisin cookies, even in May. Those scents make most people feel a happy sense of hominess, inspire nostalgia for the warmth of family holiday gathering goodness. That, in turn, encourages home buyers to bond positively with the house and feel the urge to write a generous offer. For people who grew up in dysfunctional environments where holiday joys like baking were twinned with emotional battering and violent swings, those same smells can trigger anxiety and even revulsion, turning the popular Welcome Home into Hell Hole Home with just a few sniffs.

My favorite expert on the negative side of memory cues post trauma is Aphrodite Matsakis. Her book, I Can’t Get Over it: A Handbook for Trauma Survivors, really was my handbook. If you or someone you know is a trauma survivor, check out this book. It helped me deal with a raging case of crippling Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I still use some of the techniques described in the book. What does this have to do with Silent Night? I was released from the hospital eighteen days post-violent assault (and being held captive for five hours).

It was three weeks before Thanksgiving. I remember those weeks as being excruciatingly long. I was afraid to leave the house by myself but I had to get out of the house every day to walk, walk, walk: movement calmed me and helped me deal with the horrible flashbacks. It was a way to change the story by “getting away” every day; it reminded me I did escape the assailant and what was planned to end in death and it helped my brain understand that escape by reliving it.

Thanksgiving ushered in the season of Advent. The bright lights, the cheery decorations, the ubiquitous Christmas carols, these reminded me that I had lost my sense of wonder and worse, I also had lost my sense of security. The confidence I used to feel that no matter what, I would be okay, was gone.  How could I have Christmas without safety and optimism?

One song in particular haunted me: it was Mannheim Steamroller’s Stille Nacht. The record redefined the classic Silent Night. Steamroller begins Stille Nacht with a spare piano accompanying monk-like male voices gently humming the melody. The reverence ebbs and flows with each note. A toy piano joins the grown up piano for a transition, and then, a violin begins to sing the well-known melody from its wood-string soul. The reedy echo after the violin threads longing between the notes. The ethereal swell of sound from the violin, piano, harp and other instruments crescendos and then…only the violin slides down the other side of the song’s “halleluiah.” The pianos return with their keyed transition and then the rest of the instruments rejoin the violin to “sleep in heavenly peace.”

Back in 1993, I cried every time the song played on the 24/7 Christmas music radio station. Whoosh! All the pain and anguish inside me would flood from me, soaking my face and my hands…and hundreds, maybe thousands of tissues. That violin sang my lonely cry to God for comfort, undoing me every time I tried to put myself back into the little box I had constructed to feel somewhat safe deep inside me.

For the next twenty years that song stirred the sadness, squeezed tears from me every time I heard it.That made for some awkward moments at holiday parties and family gatherings, awkward, sad moments I would explain away as being overwhelmed by the haunting beauty of the instrumental arrangement. Stille Nacht was the Christmas crying song. Some years I just couldn’t bear to hear it so I’d switch stations as soon as I heard the first notes of that unmistakable piano intro. Other years I welcomed the opportunity to drain the pain with a good crying jag.

I’ve done a lot of work on myself these past two and a half years, work to heal and grow. Most of it had to do with confronting the past, forgiving myself and others, and welcoming God back into the driver’s seat. Each day now begins and ends with, “Thy will, not mine, be done.”

I also got sick of the symptoms of that sickness PTSD and tried EMDR therapy. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing was developed to help treat and even end the crippling symptoms of PTSD. A few years ago I worked in the same building where clinical research trials of EMDR were being conducted. I’d see the signs and wonder if it might work for me. I had other issues I had to deal with first so I didn’t sign up for the trial. After two decades of flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety especially triggered around the anniversary of the attack and triggered by visual and geographic cues, EMDR freed me. If you have PTSD, I urge you to check out EMDR. It doesn’t work for everyone, and it’s not without its detractors, but it really helped me.

The work, well, worked. For the first time this past Christmas, I didn’t cry when Stille Nacht rose from the radio. I heard it and it wasn’t the song of sadness and loss. I heard it and hummed along to it while I wrapped gifts for the people I most love, the people who love me that much, too. When it played as part of our Christmas Eve soundtrack, I smiled, feeling full of love, hope, and safety.

Stille Nacht is an anthem to resiliency, a reminder of the gift of salvation God gave us all 2014 years ago, on the very first Christmas. That’s its story, its theology, its offering, its truth. That’s its heavenly peace and today, that peace is mine, too.