Ah, Christmas. A solemn, joyful time of year for Christians, where silent and holy nights are de rigueur and Norman Rockwell springs eternal in the collective unconscious of the American mind. And then it happens…. You try–contrary to what conventional wisdom says about the subject–to go home again.
Now, let me state right up front that this article is not for those of you who can’t wait to fly home and reenact your own Currier and Ives Christmas in all your old haunts with all your cherished friends and relations. If this is you, then I wish you a Merry Christmas, a happy New Year, tons of figgy pudding in your stocking, and with that, I bid you a fond, holiday farewell until next year. No, this article is for the rest of you (you know who you are), who right about now are thinking that going to the local ice rink and lying down in front of the Zamboni machine may be preferable to putting up with one more Christmas of mom making “helpful” comments about your weight, dad getting more than his share of nog in the egg, your corporate attorney sister (aka “Little Miss Perfect”) telling you how she is glad that you are happy in your “little life,” your brother-in-law (the one that hit you up for $2,000 last Christmas for the Ostrich farm) asking you for money, or for that matter, Great Uncle Harold, who never tires of telling your twelve-year-old son the latest dirty jokes.
What can you do when going home for the holidays feels just a little too much like starring in your own, personal horror story, the kind where the hero/heroine (that would be you) barely escapes with his or her life, but not before suffering unspeakable, holiday-inspired trauma from the great beyond? How can you survive, or even (dare I hope?) enjoy your holiday in spite of the old wounds and present slights? Let the following five tips be your holiday survival guide.
1. Don’t Try to Solve the Unsolvable.
“Every year its the same thing.” Marylin complained to me in session, “My parents never see how awful my sister is to me. She is so petty and hurtful. I’ve tried to talk directly with her about it, but she always tells me I’m just too sensitive. When I ask my folks to give me some support, they just tell me they wish I could be more like her. They have always treated her better than me as long as I can remember. What can I do to make them see how much they’ve hurt me?”
There is a prayer that asks God to give us the courage to change what can be changed, the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference. Now might be a good time to dust that prayer off. Generally speaking, when someone is acting in an offensive way toward you, the direct approach is the best approach. But if that person has been treating you the same obnoxious way since you were five, chances are you are not going to solve the problem this year, or any year for that matter, regardless of how direct or indirect you are about it. And the sooner you accept this hard fact, the happier you are going to be.
When it comes to longstanding problems with family members you only have two healthy choices available to you. If the ongoing offense is too terrible an affront to either your personal dignity (e.g., abusive language or physical violence) or to your sense of moral well-being (e.g., open and unrestrained hostility toward your faith and beliefs), then your best bet may be to simply skip the family shindig this year and concentrate on starting your own traditions. On the other hand, if the ongoing offense is not quite so serious, I would recommend that you do your best to grin and bear it. Remind yourself that you are a grown-up, and that while these people are an important part of your past, they can only play the part in your present and future that you see fit to allow. True, you may feel like a three-year-old in their presence, but the fact is, you are in charge now. If you can remember this, you will be able to find the maturity to practice the spiritual work of mercy known as “bearing wrongs patiently” and perhaps even find some wisdom in the age-old Catholic practice of “offering it up.”
2. You Don’t Have to Save Your Family from Themselves.
I recently read a case study of a man who was dreading going home for the holidays because of his mother’s excessive drinking. His therapist asked him to imagine getting the following note in his mailbox. “Dear Charles, I wanted you to know that for the rest of her life, your mother is going to be an alcoholic and remain completely oblivious to anyone’s efforts to help her. Love, God.”
Charles reported that even though the therapist’s words shocked him at first, he realized that barring some major miracle–a miracle that was beyond his ability to produce–his mother was indeed going to have a problem for the rest of her life. While this saddened him, he also realized that for the first time he could go home with some peace, because it wasn’t his job to save her.
People often tell me that they dread going home again because they feel it is their job to save their family, to be the witness that lead them all to Christ, or at least witnesses that stop the family from killing each other. If this is you, I want you to repeat after me, “I am not the family Messiah. I am not the family Messiah, I am not….”
Yes, when you are around your family you must conduct yourself in a manner that makes you proud of your own behavior, but stop trying to play the prophet or putting yourself, your mate, or your kids on display so that the rest of the family will see your light and follow you to Midnight Mass. That is simply more pressure than anyone can stand, and it will make everyone around you (especially your mate and children) despise you. No one likes a self-righteous prig, even at Christmas. The best way to be a light is not by being perfect, but by being peaceful. Do whatever it takes to maintain your calm and take excellent care of your own mate’s and children’s emotional well-being. Leave your family to their own devices. If you can manage this, maybe, just maybe, someone in the family will one day come to you and ask, “What’s your secret for staying so calm in the middle of all this insanity?” But before this can happen (perhaps a hundred years from now) you will have to practice becoming a credible witness to your family by being a peaceful, sane person whose faith–as St Francis de Sales says faith must be–is attractive.
3. Don’t Play the Game.
Certain people like to play a party game therapists call, “Let’s you and him fight.” That’s where somebody puts two people with violently divergent opinions in the same room, raises a hot topic, and then stands back at a safe distance to watch the fireworks.
There are political, religious, and personal versions of this game. Your job is to avoid this game at all costs, because there are no winners, only losers. If you play, you will end up looking like one of the reject guests for a holiday episode of Jerry Springer. Remind yourself that these arguments are really not going to convince anyone about anything and that, in fact, you are being set up, merely for the amusement of another person(s). Resist the temptation to fight. Instead, if you know you are going to a place where you openly disagree with everything that is being said, focus all your energies on making polite conversation, or alternatively, heading to the buffet table and stuffing your mouth full of the driest cookies you can find so that you couldn’t say something inflammatory even if you wanted to.
Of course this does not mean that you cannot answer sincere questions asked by the more honest members of your family. Just remember that people asking sincere questions about spiritual, emotional, or political issues do not often do so with a smirk on their face and twenty other people looking on. If the situation is the latter, you are being set up.
4. Know When to Say When
Know when to call it a night (or morning, or early afternoon) and make sure you have a nice safe hotel to run to when things start getting to you. There is nothing wrong with beating a hasty retreat when you feel that you can’t take it anymore. Find an excuse to bug out whenever you need a break (something like, “I’m sorry, I suddenly began experiencing stabbing pains through my entire body” usually does the trick.) You can always come back later, after you have cooled down. And if anyone is offended by you keeping a separate domicile, just tell them you were trying to inflict yourself on them as little as possible. They probably won’t admit it to your face, but chances are, they will be as relieved as you are.
This is the most obvious, but also the most important. But if you pray, please ask God to give you the grace to be a sane credible witness, BEFORE you pray for the conversion and sanity of the rest of your family. Remember, as St, Francis said, it is much more important to understand than to be understood, to love than to be loved, to consol than to be consoled. The paradox is, the more you practice these virtues, the more respect you will be afforded by those around you. Pray that God would change you first.
These five tips probably won’t be the source of any great holiday miracle, but they just may stop you from impaling yourself on a sprig of holly at the thought of seeing “those people” for yet another holiday.
And sometimes, that is miracle enough.
For more information on handling those delicate situations in your extended family, check out God Help Me, These People Are Driving Me Nuts! Making Peace with Difficult People.