With all the promise of joy and celebration that the holiday season brings, there is also a significant amount of frustration, anxiety, grief and difficulty that many of us encounter in ourselves and in the people we are close to. I don't need to make easy claims like these—you know the reality well.
Our conversations around the tension of holidays range from polarizing to humorous to narcoleptic, and many people have opinions about how such tensions should be dealt with. I’d like to propose that its hard to have good conversations, conversations that move us forward into personal and interpersonal healing and presence, without clarity about the tension, pain and wounds that this time of year often unearths.
It’s easy for us to “get clear” on why we can’t stand this uncle for that belief or our parents for for that political view, but the bigger question, I think, is why we can’t stay present for more than 60 seconds across the dinner table. This is not to say, of course, that we must stay present, only to say that insofar as we want to but don’t know how, we might need a map to navigate the terrain.
So, below, I’ve proposed a number of reasons that the holidays might be difficult, reasons that might intertwine with our differences of belief or opinion to make presence even harder. Naming these things helps us tell stories that are nuanced, the kind that empower us to make small changes. Small changes probably don’t look like radically shifted worldviews, but they often create enough space for shifting relationships. And shifting relationships are often what allow for us to forge new relationships to truth. So, for anyone hoping for such small changes, which gesture at the hope for big change, I’ll outline some areas you might pay attention to. These areas point to tensions and pain that you have some power to work with, even if you don’t have power to change the minds of other people.
A short list: (I deeply hope that not all of these are true for you, but crazier things have happened) 1. You spend most of the year with a relatively significant amount of self-determination, personal space, + comfortable routine, and the holidays take away at least one of those.
2. Moving yourself (and perhaps a family) through airports and/or spending long hours in the car is a tiring, germ-infested, and a potentially harrowing process that leaves you feeling stressed.
3. Your role in the community of your family or friends that you visited is very different than the role you play where the rest of your life takes place. You are having a minor identity crisis because the expectations for your behavior are very different in each place, and it’s a big transition for such a short time.
4. Updating everyone on your life is a weird/uncomfortable experience when these are the people you spent most days with for a large portion of your life. You wish it didn’t have to be this way and you are sad that the distance is being highlighted.
5. Whether by intention or not, you and your sibling(s)/cousin(s)/friend(s) are comparing or being compared to one another.
6. You have a job or lifestyle that isn’t understood, supported, encouraged, approved of, or culturally normative in your family. It feels like a survival skill to defend its legitimacy.
7. Money is tight, but travel, activities, eating out, and gifts are all part of the expected holiday routine, so you are going into debt for this experience that you are ambivalent about anyway. Or, you are not going into debt and you feel sad/embarrassed/mad about your inability to participate in certain rituals.
8. You love your bed and your sleep, like, a lot, and you wind up sleeping for 2-7 nights on a leaky air mattress, or with your sister who spreads out and steals the covers, or for less time than you like, or in a shared space in the house, or in the room of some significant childhood discomfort or trauma, and so you are tired.
9. Holidays remind you of people or relationships that you lost to death or painful separation, and that is just plain difficult, so what presents itself as a celebration really feels a lot more like mourning.
10. You just ate more sugar than you have had in the last few months in a matter of a week, and your body is deeply protesting.
11. You rush to get everything done at work before the holidays, but just when you adjust to the holiday life, you realize that you have to go back to work soon, and you just finally caught up on the sleep you missed to get everything taken care of prior to your much-needed break.
12. You catch yourself reverting to a childhood version of yourself and so you feel like a little vulnerable kid and you’d prefer to not feel that way. Or, someone else is doing that, and it is hard to watch. Or, you wish you could do that, but you’ve never really had a chance to be a child because you’ve had to be the responsible one in your family for as long as you remember.
Part of the problem with our cultural conversation around “the holidays” is that, in large part, we want to make it seem like or we believe strongly that our different beliefs about particular issues are the main or only problem. And while I don’t deny that these differences are hard and certainly creators of varying degrees of tension, I propose that such issues emerge in environments that are much more complex and interesting and pregnant with possibility than we often allow them to be. In short, our stories aren’t complex enough. Living from a stunted, dualist cultural imagination belies the power we have to influence our environment through hopeful engagement with people who see the world differently, or even in ways that scare us.
It won’t serve you, or your community, to get stuck in the narrative that our different beliefs are the only problem—it isn’t hopeful, because “defending” ourselves is only ever an act of self-protection, not an act of love. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that for many people there is a real need for self-protection because there are some real dangers to their very bodies. This is a reality that must be discerned for each person. For those who feel enough security or courage, it seems we must re-submit ourselves to the possibility of pain by letting go of the things that would keep us from the possibility of vulnerable relationships. Vulnerability is, by definition, the possibility of being hurt. It is also seems like the place where relationships of equality are built.
The more entrenched in our rightness, our pride, our particular role, our difference, our need to have all the knowledge, our distrust, our escapism, our power over, or our conflict avoidance (do you hear echoes of different type issues here?!), the less likely we are to have conversations that matter, the less likely we are to be changed or to affect change, the less likely we are to experience personal or interpersonal renewal. Healing and renewal are never immediate—they are process-words. When we begin to walk the path of healing and renewal, we commit to seeing what it will be like to experience change—and who knows what that change will require. But it will require a space to be near. Nearness and the capacity to be changed are, themselves, vulnerabilities.
I'm not hoping to offer an easy answer here, only to say "something's gotta give." If there is space to shift, why don't you try going first? Go first by examining what is really going on in you and in the relationship(s). Go first by accepting the situation and appreciating what it might teach you. Go first by being willing to accept a person even if they will never change. Go first by being willing to hold a non-dual approach to relationships, letting someone else belong alongside you, without having to prove who deserves that belonging more.