How to Survive Holidays Spent With People We're Supposed to Love, But Don't

How to Survive Holidays Spent With People We're Supposed to Love, But Don't


If you are facing holidays this year with Those You Cannot Love, here are 4 helpful tactics.

I sat scared and sullen through so many childhood holidays as my relatives bickered and took out their bitterness on me. As an adult, I gazed down festive tables at in-laws who had let their young son wander the night streets ringing doorbells, begging strangers for meals.

No one ever apologized or made amends for what I consider—justly or not—emotional crimes. Instead, they simply marched through life praising themselves.

And this is why I am an expert in Holidays Spent With Those We Are Supposed to Love But Don't. Or can't, or won't.

I wish that this was not my field of expertise. I truly wish it wasn't, that I was a connoisseur of warmth, not coldness. But it is.

I know I'm not alone. Nor, if your situation even vaguely mirrors mine, are you. Those lucky ones who gaze fondly from face to face under solstitial skies tend not to realize just how fortunate they are, nor that luck even figures into this at all.

It does. Life is unfair and doesn't suddenly become fair just because the calendar displays a certain date. If those closest to us by marriage or association or DNA have maltreated us, our wounded hearts might feel unable to forgive and/or forget simply because this is a holiday.

Maybe forgiveness and forgetting are even harder on holidays because holidays, packed with piety and ritual, are doubly packed with expectations: of presents and miracles, of holy milestones such as most holidays mark: births, harvests, independences, the turnings of seasonal wheels.

When, in a potent haze of pumpkin-spice subconscious and little-kid longings, Those We Cannot Love show no sign of transforming, then the holiday itself in all its shiny, sparkly, hallowed wrappings feels like mockery. Sometimes it even seems to change into another kind of holiday: a darker one, denoting with all its ironic shimmer our continuing defeat.

This state of mind is not just inconvenient or uncomfortable. It's isolating, desolate, and if we cannot process these emotions they can make us detest ourselves even more.

For what? For hating forced festivity? For wishing villains weren't having fun? For sulking? For not being saints?

If you are facing holidays this year with Those You Cannot Love, here are some helpful tactics I have tried:

• Find someone or something at the holiday gathering that you can love. A fellow guest. A child. A pet. A painting on the wall. Watching trees through a window. Tangerines. Lamplight illuminating teacups. Get as abstract as you must, but find that thing and ride the joy of loving it.

• Bring a book. We've all sat reading in dentists' waiting rooms, right? Well, for some of us certain holiday gatherings are not unlike dental appointments. Sneaking secret reads (in the bathroom, say, or on our phones) can be relaxing, amusing, inspiring — and can transport us to better places far away.

• Breathe. The functional opposite of escapist sneak-reading, meditation keeps us present, but helps us observe and accept ourselves instead of staying snared in reacting to our reactions to our reactions. Think it's impossible in a holiday crowd? "We can meditate anywhere, anytime — even while having a meeting," asserts Nepalese master Yongey Mingur Rinpoche. "A lot of thought and emotion comes in, in the background. Don't care, no problem. ... Even two breaths, one breath."

• Memorize and recite. Before the gathering, memorize a poem, a quotation, song lyrics, liturgy — whatever cheers, soothes and/or strengthens you. Then, during the gathering, silently recite those words whenever you need them, just as a desert hiker would sip water from a canteen.

• Re-signify the holiday. Give it a new meaning, new story, new symbols and new name that make you feel more like a celebrant and less like a loser. For instance: Endurance Day, during which I survived a stressful meal, then watched my favorite film for the fifth time. Tangerine Day, devoted to adoring this sweet, bright and easily peeled fruit. The birthday of Dutch thermodynamicist Johannes Diderik van der Waals. Reading-The-Secret-Life-of-Bees-Day.

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