With holidays comes more family time… which often comes with scrutiny of personal choices and political drama rivaling anything on television.
This year, the tension seems heightened. Headlines provide daily fodder for disagreements to snowball. The divide between the two sparring halves of the population (namely, People Who Think What We Think, and People Who Are Wrong) has never felt more cavernous.
And so, when we gather with extended family at the end of the year, we predict the worst. Scornful glances will be thrown. Condescending things will be said. Spiteful things implied. Pointed questions asked. Positions assumed. Hackles raised, arms crossed, adrenaline spiked and friendships and holidays ruined. Or cancelled: One friend told me she feared being uninvited from her family’s Thanksgiving due to ideological differences.
It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
As the skies (literally) grow darker and the issues we face grow more personal, we need to stop emphasizing our differences and remember our commonalities. The best thing we have is our relationships with each other. The worst thing we can do for the safety and happiness of our communities and countries is tear each other down, regardless of our individual beliefs. It’s ineffective, anyway: I suspect fewer people change their minds over rapidly cooling Thanksgiving dinners than in Facebook comment threads.
Each of us has beliefs and personal life choices worth defending, and there are certainly important issues at stake for our global community. But our effort is best spent healing the relationships that make up our society. That usually happens on a micro scale: one friendship at a time, one family at a time.
So how can we manage the unglamorous task of loving people who are being difficult and not being difficult ourselves? Let’s dive in.
Before: Prepare now to reduce tension later.
01. Set realistic expectations and brainstorm stress management.
If a family event is upcoming and you’re wary of how charged it might be, consider reaching out and establishing beforehand that it’ll be a policy-free time. This proposal may even be met with relief—few eagerly anticipate fights.
Come to the holidays armed with non-controversial conversation subjects. Consider leaning toward topics from culture or shared history instead of current events. Remember that laughter is the best unifier.
Purposely pack the itinerary (if you can) with calming, fun activities. If you’re hosting, make sure that the environment is neutral and relaxing, and that there is plenty for people to do. If you’re not, come with coloring books for everyone, or put people to work setting up a scavenger hunt. (Whatever works for your family!)
02. Educate yourself.
Learn about the issues that are out there—misunderstanding helps no one.
Dig for rationales for choices, beliefs, or positions that may differ from yours. As Madeleine L’Engle writes in A Wrinkle in Time, “Just because we don’t understand doesn’t mean the explanation doesn’t exist.” Behind each opposing viewpoint is a person who is scared for the future, has a family to protect, and has an internal consistent logic fueling their choices. While you’re thinking about it, turn the table. Why do you believe what you believe? It’s doubly pointless to be defensive without having a cause you both care about and fully understand.
For any known points of friction, whether personal or political, consider coming up with a “party line” that is kind but invites no further discussion. Memorize it and stick to it. (Bonus: This approach always makes me feel slightly like a member of the royal family.)
03. Practice self-care; it leads to others-care.
Think about taking a break from anything you know riles you up and makes you more likely to lash out—for example, social media. Fill yourself up with good things instead, like fiction or meditation or exercise. If you arrive at the festivities relaxed and happy, you’ll have more positivity to offer your family.
During: Breathe. Empathize. Love your neighbor.
01. Disagree nicely.
Sometimes it’s impossible to ignore the elephant in the room; that’s okay. Know that you’re going to disagree, and remember that it’s not up to you to change someone else’s mind.
When discussing issues, avoid the ad-hominem brain-trap. This is a common move in which we conflate the issue a person is defending with what we think about the person—and respond by attacking the arguer rather than the argument. It’s the logical equivalent of trying to serve soup in a colander: ineffective, unpleasant for everyone involved, and likely to result in nasty burns, rhetorical or otherwise.
Try not to sniff and say, “Well, it looks like we’re going to have to agree to disagree.” A better resolution to work towards is, “Okay. I can respect that.” This works even if we have to tease out something basic to respect, like “I just want our children to be safe.” Regardless of the methodology proposed to attain that end, we all get that.
And remember: Not acting with kindness and respect is at the very least a major PR bummer for you and your ideology.
02. Practice empathy.
Underlying disparate choices is usually some sort of common issue, and while we may not fully understand everyone’s beliefs, we can almost certainly relate to the feelings and history behind them. People respond to situations differently based on the knowledge and background they have, and no two of us are the same—so what one person sees as a return to sanity, another can see as an attack.
Often, the fierce arguments these issues incite come from a very human place of feeling confused, scared, less-than, or sad. Become a forensic listener: When someone else lashes out, what is their tone? What is their body language saying?
Try out the creative-thinking experiment of looking at the same situation from another’s point of view. Address the hurting person behind the inflammatory comment; don’t stoke the fire. As Albus Dumbledore reminds us, “Differences…are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.”
03. Dare to love.
When we think of “hate,” we tend to think of overt, extreme actions which result in sad and shocking news stories, but tiny actions intended to hurt contribute to and build the foundation for bigger problems. These can be as small as willful misunderstanding, sarcasm gone too far, or a caustic silence. An eye-roll is not violent, but it’s not an act of love.
Furthermore, the little barbs we throw out into the world aimed at other people land twice. Each time we intentionally tear down someone else, even in miniscule ways, we chip away at ourselves. Cultivating a negative mindset hurts you as much as it hurts those around you.
So go out of your way to be thoughtful instead. Take over washing dishes; express genuine interest in your cousin’s new job; smile.
After: Transition from the living room to the living world.
After we’ve all packed away our holiday decorations, let’s remember to keep up the relationships we nurtured. Send a few follow-up texts—it can feel weird to reach out, but it will make the recipient’s day.
If you and your family are in a good place, take a minute to be grateful for that. Fill yourself up with peace from your time with them, take a deep breath, and go out into the world and pay that calmness forward.
Extending your goodwill past the holidays and outside the home can be as simple as trying not to scowl every time you see a bumper sticker advertising an issue you don’t support. (At the very least, your facial muscles will thank you.) Or we can reach out in larger ways: by volunteering, by connecting to our communities, by cultivating a learning mind when it comes to people of differing beliefs and backgrounds.
For now, wish everyone a happy holiday season—and mean it. We all need one.