It's the time of year for family togetherness.
And while that can be wonderful, as we share memories, inside jokes, and that comfortable sense of belonging with our loved ones, it can also be stressful. Not all memories are good, and no relationship is without its bumps.
We love to sing about "peace on earth, goodwill to all." But how can we actually live at peace, when there's so much potential for stress?
Areas of disagreement cause stress.
Sometimes it's the "no go" areas, the things that are left unsaid, the subjects we don't touch on, that can make an otherwise happy gathering unsatisfactory.
To avoid disagreements, I don't talk about politics or some religious topics with my family, since I know we have different opinions. That strategy may keep things civil, but I realize I've sacrificed any chance for my siblings to really know me, and I've given in to the assumption that we can't possibly understand each other or find common ground. That's lonely, and reduces our interactions to trivia.
I do think the holidays are a bad time to deliberately press on areas of disagreement. If I want a more frank discussion with my siblings, with the hope that we will at least be able to air differing points of view in a respectful manner, I should be attempting that at other times of the year.
What if someone else brings up a contentious topic? Don't allow yourself to be drawn into an argument. Just change the subject.
Lack of forgiveness causes stress.
When you're with people you've known all your life, there are bound to be a few areas of friction. There will be instances in which you've been less than loving and kind to each other over the years.
It's hard to forgive, but it can also be hard to carry a grudge. That requires remembering past hurts and nurturing our sense of outrage. It's not a comfortable way to live. But I'm certainly childish enough to remember some ancient insults and disappointments.
How can I become more forgiving? Anne Lamott, in talking about this subject, suggests that we remember what a miracle it is that we are even here, and how amazing it is to even be part of a family. I am very fortunate to have grown up in a family that was mostly functional, as did my husband. In holding them to an unattainable standard of perfection, I wrong them.
When I carry resentment or bitterness, I clearly demonstrate that I too am in need of forgiveness. Lamott goes on to say,
"Earth is forgiveness school.
It begins with forgiving yourself,
and then you might as well start at the dinner table...."
If you are the one who has caused the injury, why not make a phone call to apologize? Perhaps you can make it right today.
Envy causes stress.
Envy is poison to a relationship. The family member who has been unusually successful in a career, whose child made it to an Ivy League university, or who enjoys large financial resources can stir up comparisons and jealousy among other family members. Sometimes the one with advantages can't stop talking about them; other times you are the one who doesn't control your resentment, even if they aren't bragging.
You can't enjoy the holiday while comparing your home, your budget, or the number and size of gifts under your tree. Wanting more than what you have just leads to depression at any time of the year. For your own sake, cultivate your sense of appreciation.
If you have a family member who tends to brag, ask yourself why he feels the need to do that. Maybe he envies something about your lifestyle. If you're the person in an enviable situation, be humble, be generous, and make it clear you're interested in hearing about other people's trials and triumphs.
Abuse causes stress.
In situations where there is true abuse, even if it is in the past, you may need to strictly limit the time you spend with someone, even if they're family. If your mother can't stop berating and belittling you or your child, you probably don't want to spend any part of the holiday with her. In the interest of maintaining a scrap of connection, you might choose to meet on neutral ground, such as a restaurant, for a meal either before or after Christmas. Keep the visit as short and sweet as you can, but calmly leave if the abuse starts.
Indifference causes stress.
Don't ignore the older people at your gathering. Listen to Papa's stories about his WWII experiences, and pay attention to Grandma's memories of working as a phone switchboard operator in the early 50s. This is your heritage, and it's real history. And you know these loved ones won't be around forever.
And since we're on the subject, why take the time to be with family if you're just going to ignore them once you're together? Can we please, just for the day, turn off the TV and computer and set aside our phones? The people right in front of us are human beings. They are more important than anything we can access with our devices.
This is the time of year for peace.
Let peace begin inside yourself, peace with the past and with who you are now. As far as it depends on you, let interactions with others be positive. You can't control the reactions of anyone else, but you can choose to be a dispenser of grace.
"Grace is spiritual WD-40....
The mystery of grace is that God loves...Vladimir Putin and me
exactly as much as he loves your new grandchild."