Every Thanksgiving I have my annual viewing of the 1995 movie, Home for the Holidays. It’s a terrific ensemble of actors (Holly Hunter, Dylan McDermott, Robert Downey Jr., Anne Bancroft, Geraldine Chaplin, Charles Durning) that does a fabulous job depicting the underbelly of family get togethers: the rifts and rivalries, the tensions and love, and the way we both know and don’t know the people we call family. If you haven’t ever seen it, you really must, particularly if you are one of those people for whom the approach of the annual Thanksgiving gathering generates not gratitude but a vague, sinking sort of feeling accompanied by thoughts of a beach somewhere in Mexico.
I know exactly one person who loves getting together with family for the holidays. She tells of wonderful parents and siblings and spouses who actually like one another and who sit around laughing and drinking cider and playing Yahtzee. I don’t buy this story for one minute, but I nod and smile. During one memorable family gathering of mine, my mother looked at me across the table and remarked, “Kate, you look just like Meg Ryan with that haircut.” And then she added, “I hate Meg Ryan.”
For many of us, the holidays evoke more stress than gratitude, and for good reason. From the pleasures of holiday travel to the joy of being confined in a small space with people who A) haven’t gone to counseling B) drink too much or not at all and C) carry grudges and have memories like elephants, it’s an ordeal. And still we gather, entertaining the misguided wish that this time it might be different. We’ve had therapy. We can do this. We’re not going to let them get to us this time.
And then they do.
Family is equipped like nothing else on the planet to stir up the psychic debris you thought you’d gotten rid of. They do this by treating you as they always have. They do it by seeing you not as who you are, but who you are to them. Before you know it, you find yourself transformed into a small and terrible person, a person you do not wish to be, a person you aren’t. Or are you?
Family is tough, people, it just is. And I believe it is, in large part, because our family is here to facilitate our spiritual growth. Frequently they do this by being truly dreadful. It can take some serious spiritual jujitsu to maintain your mental and emotional equilibrium when you’re in the middle of the madness, much less recognize how you might learn and grow from it.
In recognition of this, I’d like to offer the following three mantras to help you keep your balance through the holidays — just in case that flight to Cancún is all sold out.
It’s not personal.
Nothing horrid that anyone says or does to you is about you. It’s about them. Conscious, loving people do not resort to vituperative comments, accusations, sarcasm, toxic tantrums, ice-outs or judgment. Such behaviors come from deep, untended wounds and reflect only the state of the person who inflicts them. Knowing this can help you to mentally and emotionally side step the caca that comes your way, and it might even allow you to feel compassion for the other person. Maybe. That’s extra credit.
Thank you, Sensei.
Our greatest lessons come from our greatest challenges. Patience, kindness, understanding, compassion and peace are only tested and strengthened by challenge. See your family member as an unwitting spiritual teacher, presented by the universe to test your awareness and see if you’ll take the bait. When your sibling/parent/in-law makes a snide or unconscious remark, you can say, “Thank you, Sensei.” It will really mess with them. Remember, just because someone passes you a plate of poo-poo doesn’t mean you have to accept it. “No, thank you, I’m paleo.”
Do you want to be right, or do you want to be happy?
When things hit the fan and you’re itching to jump in, prove your point and win the battle (which you won’t, by the way, no matter how brilliant and right you are), it’s good to stop and ask yourself this question. Family disputes are dead-end traps. No one escapes unscathed. Choosing to be happy rather than right does not mean that you are giving up; it means you are choosing not to play the game. You are redefining what “success” means, valuing your inner peace over your ego’s desire to engage. The real contest is not between you and them, it’s between you and you: between your ego and your higher self. When you lose the need to win, you’ve won the biggest victory of all.
Now that’s something to be grateful for.