”Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you know how you should respond to each one.”
P olitics, financial hardship, substance abuse and infectious diseases — plenty of challenges are dividing American families as we approach this holiday season.
On Thanksgiving, of all days, can’t we just get along?
Rabbi Beth Davidson from Temple Adath Yeshurun in Manchester says she sees a “significant” level of stress and anxiety among members of her congregation. Many people are still worried about COVID, and many also are struggling with rising costs, she said.
Not to mention politics.
“I think the fact that it looks like Congress is going to be deadlocked and nothing is going to get done in the next two years just adds to people’s general malaise,” Davidson said. “The last couple of years have been so polarizing, with politics and the dissolution of civility, that people are anxious about that as well.”
For an antidote, Davidson suggests turning to the Jewish ideal of “shalom bayit” — “which literally means ‘peace in the house,’” she said.
“It teaches this idea that there are things that you don’t bring home, and that you strive for peace and strive for openness and tolerance and acceptance,” Davidson said. “I would say that in individual homes, that’s an ideal that’s wonderful to strive for, but I think particularly at holiday times, it’s a helpful idea.”
Rik Cornell, vice president of community relations at the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester, suggests a holiday gathering be viewed as a sort of “demilitarized zone.”
“You don’t talk about things that people are going to get into arguments about,” he said. “You stay clear of them.”
That may prove challenging these days.
The Union Leader recently asked readers to share stories of how their families and friends have managed to reconcile their differences.
It set off a virtual food fight on social media.
“No one in my family fell for Trump’s crap so we get along just fine,” one woman responded on Facebook.
“The Covid Karen’s need to apologize for their actions the last few years,” a man wrote. “Consequences is necessary.”
That prompted another to reply: “lol hope you enjoy your microwave tv dinner alone this thanksgiving.”
“Who cares. I rather not deal with dumbasses,” someone else wrote.
Meanwhile, over on Twitter, the request prompted this post: “How silly.”
Family, food and friction
Danielle Capelle, director of mental health services at Catholic Charities New Hampshire, said many people are “in a very black and white mode” these days. “It’s either ‘We get along great and we’re going to enjoy family time’ or it’s the exact opposite: ‘If you don’t have the same opinion, we’re not even going to communicate at all,’” she said.
Her advice: Plan ahead.
“If you know your family struggles with any of those hard topics, don’t be the one to bring it up, or plan to excuse yourself if that topic does come up,” she said.
“‘The dog needs to be walked? I got this.’”
If things do get heated, Capelle suggests a strategy she calls “take five.”
“Walk away,” she said. “Take five minutes.
“If it’s an important conversation that needs an outcome, then come back to it when the emotions aren’t so high. But most of these conversations, there’s no outcome that’s going to satisfy everybody.”
Family friction around the holidays is not new.
There’s often tension between young adults returning home from college or new jobs and their parents, said Krysta Marinelli, associate clinical director of the adult community support program at the Center for Life Management in Derry.
“They’re getting exposed to new people, new ideas, and they come home and they start questioning things, challenging things,” she said. “It upsets the status quo.”
Marinelli urges people to temper their expectations about family gatherings. “Don’t put all of your hopes into, ‘This is going to be the meal, the holiday, that fixes everything and puts everything back together,’” she said.
It’s OK to ask people to check their politics at the door, counselors say. And don’t be afraid to set boundaries.
“Whatever it is that’s making you stressed out, you can agree up front we’re not going to talk about that,” Rabbi Davidson said. “And maybe that then opens the space for families to talk about ‘remember when,’ and to revisit old and positive memories.”
“If you give people the guidelines — here are the things we’re not talking about today — then you have to hope and expect that people are going to respect your wishes,” she said.
Disagreeing about disagreement
Davidson thinks most families would welcome a break from everything that is making them anxious.
“I think people are so hungry to get back together face to face that most people are going to say, ‘Great, it’s going to be an oasis in time,’ and they’re going to agree to not bring up explosive issues,” she said.
Does that mean the old adage that you shouldn’t talk about politics or religion is true? Are we no longer able to have civil discourse about such weighty matters?
“I think in the year 2022, it’s not impossible to have civil discourse,” Marinelli from the Center for Life Management said. “I think it’s on the individual to remind themselves that you’ve got to come into a space maintaining respect for the other person.
“It’s getting harder and harder to do these days, but we come back to that idea of ‘Let’s agree to disagree,’” she said.
Cornell from the Manchester mental health center recommends, “Go with an attitude that you’re going to make the best of it and not make the worst of it.
“Nothing gets solved on Thanksgiving,” he said. “I don’t know why people think it does.
“The only thing that gets solved is people eat.”
Planning activities the whole family can enjoy is a good way to forestall arguments. Taking a walk, playing board games, watching old family videos or going through photo albums can all prompt laughter and fond memories.
“Holidays are often a time when new people are being brought into the fold,” Marinelli said. She suggests planning “inclusive” activities in which everyone can participate, young and old.
After all, Thanksgiving is a time to count your blessings.
“I would think we all have something to be grateful for,” Rabbi Davidson said. “Whether it’s that we have a house and a table and can sit down and eat turkey together when there are people who have none of those things,” she said, “I think we all have reason to give thanks.”
Capelle from Catholic Charities said it’s good to focus on the “here and now” at the holidays. “Enjoy being with people you care about. Enjoy watching the kids or grandkids,” she said. “Whatever your family traditions are, put the focus back on those things.”
And if all else fails?
“Eat a lot of turkey and take a nap,” Capelle said.