Depending on your viewpoint or how much wine you’ve consumed, my family falls between “Modern Family” and a skit from “Saturday Night Live.” With four generations, our family gathering was not nearly as purebred as the original Pilgrims and Indians. Black/White, Anglo/Latino, Gay/Straight, Married/Single/Committed relationships, Widowed, Divorced, Remarried, Step children, Christian/Jew/None, Native American lineage—it was all there in vivid display at the Thanksgiving table. There is currently one Asian boyfriend in the picture, but he dodged the feast. I can’t imagine why.
The agenda sent to the family for Thanksgiving Day had three notable items: breakfast; shotgunning; and the feast. For added kicks, and because Missouri sells awesome legal pyrotechnics, we added a fireworks display. Because what goes better with the dry stubble of corn stalks left in the fields than a truly spectacular firework display?
Cram too many people together for a three-day weekend with plenty of alcohol, and you can expect minor fireworks in the kitchen or in the dining room. The gay/lesbian contingent led a minor rant against those at the table who supported our President-Elect. This was the most predictable of the family feuds. Other side squabbles erupted, airing new grievances and old frustrations.
We all come to conflict with our preferred tactics. Some love the fight, spar for fun, and stir the pot. Others flee, avoiding conflicts at all costs. In hopes that your family changes things up at the next holiday, challenging ourselves to healthy ways to engage in conflict, I offer this unsolicited advice:
- What is more important to you, being right or being in relationship? No matter how convinced we are of our position, I can almost guarantee the person you are arguing with is equally committed to their position. Are you willing to stage a take no prisoners position at the expense of the relationship? We’ve all seen it: two people who refuse to speak to one another for so long they can’t remember what the original squabble was even about.
- Do you really have a dog in that fight? Too often, someone outside the conflict opts to stir the pot, feeding one person juicy gossip about another, relishing the inevitable sparks that will fly. Then he or she stands back and watches the fireworks display, clucking about the two in the feud—as if their participation did not pour gas on the flames. Instead of allowing someone to get us to function as messenger, a willing gossip stoking the embers, why not suggest that people speak directly to those they have a conflict with?
- If we are red-hot with rage, do we have the self-discipline to take a time out and understand what is underneath our anger? Anger is a secondary emotion—something deep within us triggered the rage, and unless we struggle with our inner demons to discover our own triggers, we are destined to knee-jerk reactions and fly-off the handle comments.
St Francis of Assisi, born in 1182, must have had some experience with conflict. His prayer reminds us to step back and seek to understand the position of another, to forgive, to be a beckon of hope in times of despair, and to be a compassionate presence in a hurting world.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
The iconic Norman Rockwell painting of the family at Thanksgiving captures our imagination, not because the multigenerational family is all smiling. We know too well there is some kicking going on underneath the table. It captures our hearts because everyone is present. For all our differences, we need to make room for each other at the table so that all are welcome.
Photo: by Thomas Hawk from San Francisco, USA (Flickr) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org)