The following article was first published on November 24, 2004.
As we embark on two months of holiday gatherings, many of us are wondering what it’ll take to survive the unavoidable conflicts that lie ahead. Friends and loved ones will gather around a cornucopia of recently harvested food and, despite their best efforts to avoid all things hostile, controversial topics will weasel their way into the conversation.
Here’s your common holiday fare. Dad denounces his firstborn for canceling out his vote in the latest election. Granny asks her grandniece why she’s dressed like a hussy—Halloween has already passed. Mom plays the martyr as she tries to guilt-trip anyone who walks through the kitchen into working. She’s been serving up heaping spoonfuls of guilt along with the feast for years.
Eventually, two or more loved ones end up in a contentious debate. What starts out as a pleasant gathering with relatives wassailing each other left and right, transforms into a scene from A Jerry Springer Holiday. And as a result (to put a twist on Jim Croce’s famous tune), we think about the gatherings that lie ahead and we all come down with: “The steadily depressin’, low down mind messin’, celebratin’ holiday blues.”
In fact, 85 percent of the readers we recently polled stated that their family holiday gatherings include at least one heated argument where a valued relationship suffers. Rather than strengthening family bonds with each holiday gathering, one more link in the chain of family unity is further corroded. I speak from experience.
As a boy, I looked forward to each Thanksgiving and Christmas season more than any other time of year. It was a time when I got to sit next to my brother, dad, grandfather, and uncle and watch football. I don’t remember much about the games, but I can still smell the faint aroma of granddad’s nickel cigar and feel the afterglow of the camaraderie that enveloped each event. At dinner, the men would compete for who could load up their plate the highest while the women mockingly chided them for courting a coronary. Of course, nothing earth shaking happened at these gatherings. I guess if the world looked in on these events they would think they were sappy. I thought they were wonderful. We loved and respected each other and it showed.
So why was it that when my beloved family members met in full force for the last time (before kids married and moved away and grandparents passed on), I had to be such a moron? I was now an adult fresh out of grad school where I learned all about the importance of theoretical rigor and solid methodology. So when my cousin mentioned that she was “into” subliminal learning, I couldn’t help myself. Not only did she believe that if she played audio tapes while she slept her brain would magically take it all in (something that had been discredited years earlier), but she also believed that if she listened to her favorite guru yammer on about who knows what, she would be healed.
No sooner had she announced to the crowd that she was speeding down the subliminal highway to sound mental health than I laid into her arguments like a pit bull on a pork chop. Unfortunately, her claims couldn’t be disproved. Her arguments always ended with, “but it works for me.” She was a master at ducking scientific inquiry. For instance, years later she moved a chair in her living room to “alter the room’s karma,” and sure enough she was “back on the road to psychic balance”—or so she claimed.
Not being able to discredit my cousin’s arguments, I pointed out that the one-room-school over a garage where she currently studied family therapy wasn’t a school at all—it was a loosely-coupled gathering of flakes and charlatans. I offered up this heart-felt remark to no effect. In fact, my cousin merely smiled knowingly. I hated that smile. It hit me like a punch to the forehead.
So I punched back. Quickly I moved from lobbing cheap shots to launching a full-fledged personal attack. As I raised my voice, the spirit in the room changed from merriment to discord. My tone clanked against the pleasant background music and gentle chatter. All by myself I defiled the very spirit of the holidays. All by myself I upset the delicate balance of the successful family shindig. And hot dang, I was proud.
My cousin rose to the fight, matching insult with insult. Soon we were one more casualty in the book of failed holiday gatherings—all because of one thing. I just had to be right. I just had to set the record straight. I just had to attack the faulty details. And then for years to come, instead of apologizing for taking a sacred family tradition and sullying it with ill will, I acted as if what I had done was somehow noble.
That’s right. I was just doing my part to defend sound logic and thinking. Others could listen politely while my cousin raised idiocy to an art form, but I wouldn’t take it. I’d challenge her outlandish claims and if I hurt her feelings in the process or dealt the family gathering a death blow, that’s the price I’d pay for defending scientific rigor. All great things come at a price.
This was my story and I stuck to it for two decades.
So, here’s why 85 percent of the people we recently polled experience discord right along with their annual mug of eggnog. Every family gathering that has been brought to its knees by a heated and unsuccessful confrontation contains two or more participants who not only refuse to apologize for their role in the debacle, but who justify their mean-spirited and selfish attacks by explaining that they were merely defending a core value—and how wrong can that be?
Dad wants nothing more than to help sonny-boy come to his senses. That’s why he tries to set him straight. Granny wants her grandniece to quit sending the wrong message with her scandalous attire—so she won’t attract the wrong guys. Mom just wants some credit for all that she does for everyone—is that asking too much?
Let me break from the pack by making a pact. This year I’m not going to sacrifice family unity no matter what anyone says—or no matter how important the value I think I’m defending. Should a cousin announce that her health has greatly improved since she’s started eating a bushel of pine cones for breakfast while spinning hubcaps on her thumbs, I won’t laugh out loud. I’ll ask why and then actually listen. And if I still have a different view, I’ll express it in a pleasant and caring way.
Here’s my plan. I’m going to start every discussion by asking what I really want. Does everyone really have to believe what I believe? Do I really have to win each and every point?
One thing’s for sure—I don’t want to turn every gathering into an event where you can’t talk about anything substantive; I just want to talk about interesting and important issues in a way that doesn’t violate the spirit of the holidays. I want my own children to enjoy the sweet taste of healthy family discourse, good will, and genuine camaraderie. And to keep on track, I’ll continually ask myself: “What is it that I really want?” That’s the plan.
Who’s with me?