The glorious colors of autumn begin to fade with the chill of early winter. “Pumpkin spice” and “eggnog” flavors begin showing up everywhere. Family gathers, winter clothes are taken out of storage, snow shovels and ice scrapers appear in the stores, and salt is spread on the sidewalks. It’s November, and, oh yeah, the beginning of my most despised season of work. As the holidays approach, more and more responsibilities and expectations are piled on and the stress of completing everything becomes nearly overwhelming. It’s really the worst month of the year. December is not so bad. By the time December gets here, the extra holiday work is in full swing, I have somewhat settled into a rhythm, I can see the end in sight. But November? Ugh, in November everything is still looming in front of me. I really hate November.
In November I start counting down the days until Christmas. Not out of childlike anticipation, but with a desperation for Christmas to arrive and put an end to my misery of a holiday season. I set out to simply survive the month of November.
I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. We all have a season when work or life is not easy. If you’re a tax accountant, it might be March, if you’re a teacher it might be the last month of classes. Everyone has a season when there’s too much to do, not enough time to do it, and not enough motivation to care about quality on the job.
There are times in life when you have to deal with unexpected troubles—the death of a loved one or the loss of a job. I get those times. I don’t like them, but I understand that they happen. You do your best to recover and move on. But it’s the times of expected stress that really burden me. You would assume the advantage lies with a trouble you can see coming. If I know that I’m heading into a chaotic month, I can plan ahead for it. But not for me. It’s being able to see the workload coming that tends to paralyze me with fear. So instead of using the preceding time wisely, I spend it fretting and worrying and generally making the work about 10 times harder just by dreading it.
Well, that’s how I used to approach the season.
Then, one year in November I discovered something: if you wish your days away, you lose them. Forever. I was sitting in my office, dreading the days ahead, when I realized that stressing over my work does not ease the burden of the work. Jesus said, “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matt. 6:27). The answer, of course, is no. But more unnerving is the realization that by worrying you can lose an hour of your life. You can lose a day or even a month of your time. Instead of living each day, enjoying the blessings and enduring the frustrations, I had been missing out on all the good things in those days.
Maybe this is nothing new to you. Maybe you got the message back in high school when your middle-aged teachers, full of life’s regrets, gave you the carpe diem speeches. I hated those speeches. It always felt like I was being told I had to enjoy every day of my life, and well, some days in adolescence are just plain torture. But that’s not the message. It’s not about smiling and pretending every day is awesome because you don’t want to waste your life. Seizing the day means a whole lot more for life.
Paul tells the Ephesian church “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16). Evil days? It sounds like he’s talking about November. Notice the message here isn’t despair or exuberance. He doesn’t say, this life is stressful so quit trying. He doesn’t say this life is amazing, try to love every minute. He says the days are evil (not life!), so make the most of the opportunities you have.
The thing I discovered that dark day in November when my aha moment came was this: November brings opportunities. There are moments to speak words of hope, life, encouragement, love into the lives of friends, strangers, children, elderly. There are moments of service, moments of quiet reflection with God. These opportunities are no different than the ones I have December through October, but for the first time I realized I was missing out on them for an entire month because I was spending so much time dreading the inevitable.
Maya Angelou said “We spend precious hours fearing the inevitable. It would be wise to use that time adoring our families, cherishing our friends and living our lives.” Those words resonate with me. There’s so much life to be lived, no matter what season you are in. If the only thing you do is dread the days, you miss out on life.
I still count down the days until Christmas (38 as of the date this is published), but my focus is completely different. Instead of a desperate countdown to end the frustrating, stressful season, I enter a time of anticipation. No, I don’t deceive myself into thinking it’s going to be easy or fun, and yes, I’m still relieved when the stressful season ends. But in the meantime, I count down the days of opportunity. I look for the blessing in the midst of the stress, and I thank God for all my joyful, sorrowful, stressful, sleep-deprived, wonderful, and amazing days in November, and all year long.