Why the Stillest Silence Always Comes Before the Greatest Gifts

Whether you observe Christmas or not, the order of the celebration has something to teach us about being human: the stillest silence always precedes the greatest gifts…

true self

Photo Credit: Mandajuice via Compfight cc (cropped)

The red light always flashed reliably in the dark distant sky.

When I was young, every Christmas Eve, my family traveled to a nearby town to visit relatives, and then drove home through miles of cornfield. For most of the drive, in the distance, there was a tower with a red light blinking on top of it. For years, I wondered if it was Rudolph’s nose. As I grew older, the mystery of it wore off, but I still watched that red light blink rhythmically in the black night sky. It’s difficult to remember a single childhood Christmas gift, but I remember that red light. It was steady and still.

It was the icon of a silent night.

Now, many years later, as I talk with people about this holiday we are about to observe, most of them tell me they prefer the silent night over the celebratory day that follows. Our hearts, it seems, gravitate toward stillness. Why? Because our hearts know silence always precedes the one gift all of us are truly searching for:

Our true selves.

For years, I didn’t listen to my heart. For years, as a therapist, I struggled to help people with identity formation. I thought identity was built and created through lots of blood, sweat, and tears. It was frustrating and fruitless. I always felt a little more like a failure as a therapist. And I suspect my clients usually felt a little more like a failure as a human.

I don’t believe in identity formation anymore.

Because figuring out who we are isn’t about making something new; it’s about seeing something old. There’s no such thing as identity formation; there is only identity recognition. There is only a new awareness of something original in us. In the end, we don’t make something of ourselves; we glimpse something of ourselves.

How do we finally recognize who we already are?

We get quiet. We get silent. We stop doing. We start abiding. We let our waters get still, until, in the glassiness of our silent inner night, we can see who we really are. Who we’ve always been. We see, in the darkness of a holy night, the beautiful gift we’ve been waiting for all along.

Who are you?

Better yet, who are you not?

You are not your shame and you are not your glory. You are not your mistakes and your failures, and you are not your perfection and your success. You are not your losses and you are not your wins. You are not your disappointments and your disbelief, and you are not your happiness and your certainty. You are not the wounds you’ve wound up with along the way, and you are not the wounds you’ve avoided all along. You are not your bitter anger or your trembling fear or your bottomless sorrow or your utter joy or your moments of ecstasy.

That stuff is all just your wrapping paper.

You are the gift you find underneath.

You are already the thing you’ve always wanted to be. You are enough. You are worthy of every compliment you can summon the courage to receive. You matter and you belong. You are as simple and as sublimely beautiful as your next breath. You are the redemptive heartbeat of the universe. You are the compassion you can’t contain.  You are a creator of beauty. You are a lightAnd you are the grace that knows everyone else is also a gift, just like you.

Tonight, let silence happen, and allow yourself to glimpse the gift that is you.

Tomorrow, start unwrapping.

And don’t ever stop.

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Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Shel Llee Flexman-Evans

    For just a moment while reading this, I couldn’t breathe. You create beautiful stillness, Kelly.
    Wonderful silent night to you, and happy chaotic, excited, and spent togetherness tomorrow.

  • Vanessa Portaro

    Thank you Kelly. Merry Christmas

  • Jenny

    Thank you very much for this. it’s beautiful. Merry Christmas!

  • Kim

    Simply beautiful! Thank you for the gift of you!

  • Jan

    Thank you for bringing tears of joy to my eyes. Merry Christmas.

  • Kathy Meyer Toseland

    Today is our chaotic day….but not for 6 more hours. Lots of time for stillness. For listening…for tuning in I feel so much lighter after reading this…after letting go of a few of the things I am not. And claiming who I am…as much as I can. I feel filled up again

  • Oh, gosh, Dr Kelly, I am grateful for this, for you today. Stillness and silence is an uncommon message in midst of all we are bombarded with about now. I didn’t know how thirsty I was for it until I read this. I will find some today, with sweet expectancy of the gift. Merry Christmas.

  • Scott Lindsey

    Excellent! And Merry Christmas Kelly. Your articulation of the True Self is so sublime and liberating. I’m going to share this with my family. It is so refreshing and liberating.

    Each year I have a word that chooses me for the new coming year. The word for me this next year is “patience” in light of the quote from Tao Te Ching. It goes hand in hand with seeing my True Self.

    “Do you have the patience to wait
    till your mud settles and the water is clean?
    Can you remain unmoving
    till the right action arises by itself”

  • Cathy P.

    Kelly, you (and your crystal clear words) are a gift! Thank you! I shed a few tears of recognition and joy as I read your sweet, pure, true, message!

  • Shannon

    Funny that as I read this, my house is still and silent. The tree is lit, there’s a fire in the fireplace, it’s raining outside, and the kids are, thankfully, still sleeping, giving their introvert mom the oh-so-necessary time to just sit and think.
    Christmas, for me, is losing the magic it once held. I feel like as I get older, Im stuck on this carousel ride of traditions, old and new, lights, music, people screaming at me from every direction to buy this, reminding me there’s only xx number of shopping days. Facebook is littered with family photos, christmas ads, and that blasted Elf on the Shelf who serves as a constant reminder that I have somehow failed my children as i never observed THAT tradition. There’s christmas cards I fail to send out, cookies I run out of time to bake, bags to pack for the six hour drive to make my family members happy, people asking me what I want for Christmas, telling me what to buy them, stressing out because I dont know what size my sister in law wears and cant afford anything on my mother’s wish list. The kids are out of school, hopped up on sugar, and cranky as all get out, every other commercial is for engagement rings from this store or that, reminding me that once again, Im single, Christmas movies about happy families, reminding me that I’ve never had that, the stores are crowded with people, people, people which gives me anxiety attacks, the salvation army (bless them) ringing those bells making me wish I had more to put in the bucket, and reminding me that I’ve barely paid the bills this year. Everything around me spinning faster and faster making me feel nauseous and dizzy until I (and sometimes quite literally) just want to scream STOP!!! at the top of my lungs.
    As it does every year, it all ends tonight. The kids will finally crash, be it from the end of their sugar high or just because their brains cant handle anymore excitement, the dogs will quit barking at the hyper children, the last cookie will be decorated, the last present placed under the tree, I’ll pour a glass of wine, Bing Crosby will sing White Christmas, and I’ll let the tears flow. I’ll find my silent night as I let go of all the anxiety, remind myself that not having an Elf on the Shelf did not damage my children for life, and allow myself to feel, wholeheartedly, whatever comes my way be it sadness, anger, guilt, love, or loneliness. And by the time I go to bed, peace will once again have settled in my heart and I’ll be able to rest.
    I think maybe people stay busy because they are afraid of what they will find in silence and stillness. Much like looking in a mirror, we cant hide from our true selves. When we are confronted with our own thoughts and feelings, there is no (healthy) way of escaping. BUT, we cannot change what we wont confront. Our bodies, and minds, are designed to feel pain so that we learn not to repeat the action that caused the pain. If we try to ignore, or numb, the pain, we dont learn how to avoid what brought it on. So we repeat it, and get stuck in a rather self destructive cycle. Its only in my moments of silence and stillness where I allow myself to feel the pain, that I find the solutions and begin to heal.
    Sorry for rambling on this morning. It happens when I get quiet. 🙂 Merry Christmas to all, and I wish you all a SILENT night. 🙂

    • Deb Link

      I understand you completely Shannon, and I would not call your heart felt message “rambling on” but a true expression of feelings. My children are all grown and have families of their own now, but I will always “feel” how it used to be when they were small (4 of them) and I was alone as well, married and alone.. I didn’t think about me back then, just what I needed to do to meet my responsibilities .. Its nice to hear that you are intouch with your feelings..if I had been back then my life would have been very different .. I am alone in my silent house all the time now and I enjoy every minute of every day … still peeling the outer layers off to reach the real me ….

    • Gina

      “I think maybe people stay busy because they are afraid of what they will find in silence and stillness.”

      Yes, I think so too. I have been afraid of the stillness because in it I find my weakness. In it, God is God… and I am not. In it, I have to face my mistakes and missed opportunities and failures, and to own responsibility for them. I have to see my blaring imperfections like intellectual pride, people-pleasing, vanity, shame, and my desperation for approval and accolades. I am somehow able to push them aside or overlook them in the blur of activity and people and work and distractions. I am working intently these days on getting in touch with my real self and getting honest, even when it feels scary and painful. I’m coming out of hiding. I’m laying down the fear of not meeting my husband’s, church’s, parents’, and even my own expectations.

      Your words and the author’s words are very wise and helpful. I haven’t truly just been me since I was a little girl before my parents’ divorce. Since then, I’ve worn so many masks and heard so much noise. Had so much fear. Ultimately, as I am a Christian now, the still and silent place is where I meet the grace of my heavenly Father, and going there is worth all the perceived risk. I have enjoyed glimpses of my true self, but I want to be consistent and ultimately to live in the reality of who I am in and to Christ.

      It’ll get better.

      Merry Christmas, fellow sojourners!

  • Clayre Thompson

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights. Once again my “soul” was touched by your words. It will be a silent night before the celebration but with these thoughts of yours, I will have another perspective to walk through my day with. Happy Holiday to you and yours!

  • S Ferris

    Thank You for the analogy! This just peaked an interst into what I’ll find. I’m not sure I know who I am anymore. I love the idea that “We are not what we’ve done and neither are those we judge or hold grudges against.” The same idea in reverse.
    Merry Christmas

  • Karen

    There is so little left to say here that hasn’t already been said. You are the voice of the soul. In silence a plant grows-starting small and encapulated then after being nutured it dares to break open and take root before bursting above the soil to share of itself in what ever way it was meant to be. You, Kelly are the nurturer and because of this many of us have had the courage to be who we are without apology. Yes and yes again to the silence, the stillness and new growth.
    Blessings to you and your family this Holiday season

  • Alisa

    Beautiful. No words. Merry Christmas.

  • 5DRW5

    What a gift you’ve given your readers. Word for word, it may be the most precious piece of writing ever. Thanks.

  • drkellyflanagan

    Thank you, all! I usually try to reply to every comment on the first day of a post, but consistent with the theme of today’s post, I’ll just say a few words and then be silent. For those of you who have commented today, your words are a gift to me. For those of you who have commented regularly throughout the year, thanks for the gift of you that you’ve brought to this space. And, finally, Shannon, your comment is quite insightful. In fact, in the book I’m writing, there is a chapter on cultivating stillness in order to recognize our true selves, and that chapter is immediately followed by a chapter on feelings, because they so quickly rush into the vacuum created by our stillness, and we need to learn what to do with them before our stillness can become complete. So, I see your comment as the beginning of an important conversation that is going to play out over the next year or so here at UnTangled. Thanks for having the courage to begin it.

    • Thank you for yet another beautiful, insightful post. The timing is so perfect as I’m just figuring out the name of my new website and the theme is all about how each one of is a gift and a light to shine. 🙂 I hope you and your family have an amazing Christmas and 2015.

  • Just Thinkin’

    Tonight my wife is asleep on the couch beside me and my house is still. The frenzy of present unwrapping and the cries of both joy and disappointment are still as my little ones sleep. And I read this post, as I sit here with my thoughts for 2015, and the challenges I face. Some of them relate to my self image and my self worth as I navigate a challenge to my integrity and my honesty, that is understandable, but misplaced and misguided by the person who brings it. And this post gives me such clear insight, such peace as I imagine the future.

    Thank you Kelly. I read each of your posts and look forward to every one. I don’t post as often as perhaps I should, but thank you for this companionship that I have found in your writing. Blessings to you and yours.

    V

  • Beverley Croft

    I love how you have expressed your experience of who you REALLY are within the silence. Yes, we are truly GLORIOUS AND AMAZING. It is wonderful to know that we are not all those things that we thought we were. WE ARE ENOUGH as you say. The key is to just BE, no doing, or trying, we don’t have to prove ourselves. Next then, is to the best of our ability to LIVE our lives from that place of knowing. Very much a work in progress, but the journey is wonderful.

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