Emotional Health

The Healing Power of Thanksgiving

Holidays almost always cause a certain amount of stress. For many of us, they add extra tasks and activities that must be squeezed into our already overburdened lives. We don’t want to miss out on the fun, of course, nor do we want to disappoint our friends and relatives by not meeting their expectations. And some holiday activities that are mandatory, like the office Christmas party, feel like work.

Thanksgiving is something of an exception. Though the person hosting it is clearly taking on a big task, many enjoy the challenge. The rest of us are usually not asked to do much but bring one dish, a pie, or help with the cleanup. But still, deciding where to celebrate can be a burden itself.

For those of us who have strong family traditions that are observed year after year, there may be no problem. But many families change over the years, as grandparents pass on, kids move away and marry, and blended families enter the mix. The ideal of having the whole family together at one table is often out of reach, and decisions must be made.

Many people have to choose between which family members to include and/or visit, and weighing the options can be stressful. Does your son-in-law really want you there? Will it add to his own stress fitting in with a new family if his parents show up? What about the other kids—will they be offended if you once again choose to visit the one with the grandchildren?

Even for those who don’t have these dilemmas, the anticipation of spending a day with family is worrisome. All of us have relatives who aren’t as pleasant or easy as we might wish. And lately, as the political climate is more polarized, there is more fertile ground for heated arguments and hurt feelings.

Despite all of this, holiday gatherings can be positive exercises in emotional maturity. Much as it is important to be self-aware and understand the influence that your family may have made in your life, avoiding them is rarely a solution to ambivalent feelings. Periodic encounters with family can help clarify and even provide opportunities to work through conflicts.

Although there are egregious cases when it does make sense not to see relatives, such as when there has been a history of abuse or neglect, complete avoidance is rarely a good choice. Though many people feel let down and disappointed by their families, understanding and forgiving them are  important parts of letting go of the pain they have caused us. If you hang onto it, how can you move on?

We learn as we mature is that life is unfair. As children we are stubbornly attached to the idea of fairness, and this can cause endless problems if we don’t move past it. No family is entirely balanced and democratic. Some kids require more, or different attention than others. Others of us resent the fact that our parents tried too hard to be democratic towards their kids when clearly some were less “deserving” than others. It is often remarkable how strongly these resentments can persist. And when families gather, regression is bound to occur. Your grown-up children may sometimes revert to teenage mode when around you, and it can be exasperating when they fall back into old conflicts with you or with each other.

But Thanksgiving offers not only the opportunity for gratitude but also for acceptance. In one family I worked with, the adult siblings have many negative feelings about what they considered an uneven distribution of their parents’ assets. Over the years, this has created considerable acrimony, yet they continue to gather at Thanksgiving each year, affirming their connections rather than their disputes. The holidays have helped soothe some of the ruffled feathers even though the conflict may never be completely resolved.

Another hallmark of emotional maturity is flexibility. As adults, we have to accept that things will not always be as we would like, and our adult children should accept that same standard. Some people get fixated on traditions during the holidays and fight against any change in the normal routine. Accepting that everyone may not be able to join you, or welcoming new people in the event can be difficult, but it’s also worthwhile. (Don’t be like my mother, who included my new boyfriend at a family holiday event but said to him as photographs were taken, “Why don’t you sit on the end so when you break up we can cut you out of the picture.” I knew she was kidding but I’m not sure he did.)

Having a non-traditional Thanksgiving can be an exciting experiment. It is perfectly acceptable to try different foods and different guests. Holidays offer us an opportunity to be generous to those who don’t have families, or can’t be with them for some reason. The spirit of Thanksgiving is about gratitude, but also abundance and generosity. The “story” we have learned about it may not be historically accurate, but the spirit behind it is to celebrate plenty after a period of hardship, and to share it with others.

While generosity is a consistent theme at Christmas, it is really the bedrock of all holidays. Generosity of spirit, the putting aside of conflicts, the power of acceptance and forgiveness—these are universal themes found in every culture at certain times of the year. While it would be wonderful if we didn’t need reminding of these virtues, it is useful to have special occasions when we pay tribute to connections and remember our good fortune.

Perhaps all cultures have these celebrations because we have an intuitive sense of the power that is carried in such traditions. This year, we are remembering the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. In 1914, along the front where some of the most vicious battles were fought, the men observed a truce on Christmas. They not only laid down their weapons, but they also ventured into “no man’s land” to share stories, sing carols, and exchange gifts. If the soldiers, who recognized each other’s humanity and celebrated their connections, had been in charge, perhaps the war would not have lasted another four  years and caused the deaths of an entire generation of men.

Renewing connections almost always leads to greater understanding and intimacy. Family holidays offer ideal opportunities to lay down our weapons and remember the ways in which we are all supported by each other. No matter what happened in the past, don’t pass up these chances to make it hurt less, and be grateful for the good we can offer each other.



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