The Hidden Potential in an Awkward Family Thanksgiving

“As we share meals around tables and inhabit other places of faithful presence, opportunities arise for Christians to offer the way of reconciliation as a gift from Christ to the world.”
David Fitch, Faithful Presence

When I was asked to consider writing a piece on how to handle Thanksgiving this year, I joked: “How funny that you asked the foreigner, who doesn’t have to see people for Thanksgiving!” But as soon as I sent the email I regretted writing “have to.” What I usually say on Thanksgiving is “I don’t get to see my people.”

So here’s a thought for those dreading family Thanksgiving this year—you get to see your people.

But are they “your people”? What makes them “yours?” Can families still be ours when we don’t like them or feel any connection or common ground apart from blood ties and history? Perhaps we’ve lost touch with the ways humans have always defined themselves in relation to their families. Can families still be ours when we don’t like them or feel any connection? Click To Tweet

I blame “Friends.” As a newcomer to this country in the 90’s, I learned a lot about US culture from TV. I was fascinated by how often their Thanksgiving specials were all about how much they dreaded seeing family and longed to get back to their curated collection of like-minded friends. Sure, some in the group were more quirky than others but generally they were alike.

The Value of the Western Family

It makes sense that our Western, individualistic, consumer culture would seep into our ideas of family and community. Acknowledging the generalizations, Richard Nisbett’s The Geography of Thought: How Westerners and Asians think differently . . . and Why provides helpful insights:

“East Asians live in an interdependent world in which the self is part of a larger whole; Westerners live in a world in which the self is a unitary free agent… Easterners value fitting in and engage in self-criticism to make sure that they do so; Westerners value individuality and strive to make themselves look good. Easterners are highly attuned to the feelings of others and strive for interpersonal harmony; Westerners are more concerned with knowing themselves and are prepared to sacrifice harmony for fairness.”

Even within the Western approach, Nisbett describes a difference between Continental and US perspectives.

“We generally find that it is the white Protestants among the American participants in our studies who show the most ‘Western’ patterns of behavior and that Catholics and minority group members, including African Americans and Hispanics, are shifted somewhat toward Eastern patterns.”

Even within a US, Protestant Western context, how can we be thoughtful about this individualistic inclination and what it costs us?

I saw this dynamic up close when talking to a friend as he wrestled over how to care for his aging father once he could no longer live alone. When I said to my friend, “Your house is big enough. Why not make space for him to live with you?” my friend responded with, “Oh, we’d never get along!” as if that was the end of it.

There are many practical reasons to choose a nursing home for an aging parent. But if the main reason is that living together might bring difficulty in the relationship, I wonder how we’ve come to define family relationships. I daresay that for the father to introduce his son into the house as a baby also meant a commitment to many tensions. That’s what family is. Is it a form of romanticism (or even idolatry) to have such notions of family and community, assuming family only works when there is harmony? Is it a romanticism or even idolatry to assume family only works when there is harmony? Click To Tweet

Missed Connections

Does this mean we miss the opportunity for greater connection—to be together in disunity and find something deeper? When our connection is no longer about agreement, it might force us to discover the meaning of the space or history or blood we share.

In The Dance of Connection: How to Talk to Someone when you’re Mad, Hurt, Scared, Frustrated, Insulted, Betrayed or Desperate psychologist, Harriet Lerner, begins with a story of two kids in a sandbox. After playing happily for a while, an argument erupts and eventually, one child runs away, screaming “I hate you!” And yet, within a few minutes, they’re both back in the sandbox, happily digging together again.

Adults can’t understand this strange behavior. We bear grudges and want to be right. We can’t be together until we feel understood, until we can make the other approve of or agree with us. But children are able to enjoy one another because they have different values: they choose happiness over being right. As much as we claim to long for togetherness, are we willing to give what it takes to find it? As much as we claim to long for togetherness, are we willing to give what it takes to find it? Click To Tweet

Choosing Discomfort

This doesn’t mean “going there” every time or with every one or over every issue. I’m fascinated by the words of John 2:24: “Jesus did not entrust himself to them.” There are some places where it’s just not safe. And there are times when it’s healthy to say, “If that’s the way the communication is going to go, we’re not going to talk about that.” We establish boundaries not for the sake of breaking communion but (even if it means cutting ties temporarily) for the sake of finding a way to come together again.

So if we’re not going to “go there” on this Thanksgiving day, won’t it be awkward when there’s an elephant in the room? If we only have one day to be together, it feels disingenuous to sit around the table, making small talk when there’s some significant disagreement. It may feel like we’re hovering above the deeper problem. But what if there’s a layer beneath the deeper problem—love or family connection or just plain determination to be committed and present—which we have an opportunity to live from when agreement isn’t our connection? Maybe it’s enough to name the elephant (or donkey?) in the room and affirm our deeper connection.

We’re seeing the very real damage that comes to communities (and a whole nation) when we are only around those who are like us. So Thanksgiving gives us a very real opportunity to be uncomfortable for the sake of something more important. We think happiness means being in agreement, having no conflict in our lives. And then we wonder why we’re so lonely. Maybe happiness means feeling connected even in difference, with our families and neighbors. Maybe even more than agreement and sameness we actual long to be known and still welcomed, even when we’re different? Thanksgiving gives us an opportunity to be uncomfortable for the sake of something important. Click To Tweet

I have to wonder: If we can barely be with our family at Thanksgiving, how will we feast at the table of the Lamb? Perhaps eating with angry Aunt Ethel and weird Cousin Ed is practice for the meal with multitudes from every nation, tribe, people and language.

Just as we romanticize family and community, do we romanticize this heavenly wedding feast? Do we picture rosy cheeked children right out of Disney’s “It’s a Small World” ride? What if the folks around the table bring food that smells weird? If their table manners are offensive to us? If they communicate in ways that we don’t get? Or see the world in a way that unsettles us?

When we come face to face with the reality of all that divides us, might it reveal in deeper ways the very real meaning of who Jesus is? And our very real need for Him?

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