Do you want to survive life; or do you want to thrive? Do you want to go through the motions and fly under the radar; or do you want to become a better human being and inspire greatness in others? Do you want to get through life unscathed; or do you want to make a significant mark in the world? The holiday season is a great time to recommit to your highest aspirations and celebrate in grand style. Breathe new life into stale old traditions. Breathe new life into stale relationships. Breathe new life into all the stale parts of your life. Breathe new life. Breathe.
Most of us have mixed feelings about the holidays. It’s the best of times and the worst of times. You look forward to the holidays, but they inevitably fall short of your expectations. You have fond memories of the Christmas story, but at the same time it’s feeling stale. You feel disenchanted by its dogmatic versions, and want to breathe new life into the story. You look forward to the parties and functions. But you over commit to the point where the season becomes stale and you can’t wait for it to end. You’re excited to shop for gifts; but at the same time you don’t want your kids to get caught up in the “must have” mentality of the season. Consumerism is getting stale. You wish it could all be simpler.
Then there are families. Maybe all your relationships are picture perfect and you have no tension or baggage when you gather. For most of us, there is at least one stale relationship.
Maybe it’s completely dysfunctional. Or else maybe it’s just stale and stuck. Recommit this holiday season to breathing new life into at least one stale relationship. You don’t have to be soul mates by December 26 - just breathe some new life into the relationship and put yourself on the path to living more fully.
The Simpson Family sat down for Thanksgiving meal. Homer began with a prayer, “I give thanks for the occasional moments of peace and love our family has experienced . . . well, not today. You saw what happened. O, Lord, be honest! Are we the most pathetic family in the universe or what?”
At least he’s honest. Most families have days like that at some point. When holidays such as Thanksgiving put families together for a couple of hours or a couple of days, the result can be terrifying. It can be like a WWE cage match, fighting to the death.
You walk in to your parent’s home and your Mom says, “You’re wearing that!?!” Even though you’re 45, you instantly feel 15.
Conversation moves to the weather, which you think is safe enough until your Neo-Con uncle starts in about “crazy weather patterns” and “stupid liberals” and “global warming conspiracy theories.”
Your brother announces that he and his wife are “doing things differently this year” for Thanksgiving dinner: All locally grown, organic veggies. No meat. Your grandfather mutters, “Commies!”
Your ultra conservative in-law strikes up an argument about crosses in public places. “We were here first! This is a Christian nation. Why shouldn’t we put whatever symbols we want in our public places?”
Your sister-in-law gets into a nasty argument with your banker uncle. You overhear the phrases “TARP welfare,” “Goldman Sachs skimmers,” “socialist slackers,” and “Satan” all in the same sentence.
Holiday family get-togethers can easily turn into an apocalyptic nightmare. There will be blood . . . and tears . . . and maybe even broken bones.
A man walks into a doctor’s office and tells the doctor he’s broken every single bone in his body. “That’s impossible!” says the doctor. He says, “No, it’s really true. Look!” He then touches his leg with his index finger and screams “Ouch!” Then he touches his arm and yells, “Eeeeoooow!” Finally, he touches his ribs and can barely maintain his composure as the tears start to roll down his face. He says, “See, I told you I broke every bone in my body.”
The doctor rubs his chin, and then conducts a thorough examination. “Well, sir,” he tells him, “I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is you haven’t broken every bone in your body. The bad news is you’ve broken your index finger.”
I turned to the Bible to see what inspiration it might offer this holiday season. I discovered that the Bible has good news and bad news. I chose Ezekiel’s well known vision of the valley of dry bones as a metaphor for family get-togethers. It’s a powerful story of death and rebirth. He gives the bad news first. He describes a trance-like vision he had while banished in Babylon. At a time when all the familiar traditions were taken from the Israelites, the image that came to Ezekiel was one of a valley of dry bones. They were so dry that all the life had left them; no sinews or flesh. Sound like any family function you’ve been to lately?
Then he gives them the good news. He says that even the driest old bones can still have new life breathed into them. How do you do it? With grounding, healing breath. In Hebrew language they used the same word for breath as they did for spirit. No accident, I suspect. For the Hebrews, spirit was no otherworldly piety. It was body, mind and spirit in harmony. The ancient Rabbis had a beautiful image of spirit. They saw spirit as being a house guest in the body. Therefore, you should care for the body and mind as if God is present. In your very breath, the divine dwells.
Introduce a breathing practice into your day and watch your energy increase, your mood pick up, your body strengthen, your mind sharpen and your spirit revive.
Four Agreements for Thriving With Family
1. Don’t make assumptions
Before you see family, take some cleansing breaths. Breathe out assumptions, and breathe in acceptance.
Albert Einstein said, “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” The story that you carry with you about family is persistent and makes all the sense in the world to you. But what if most of it is fictional?
An old Buddhist tale tells of two monks traveling through a wood. They come upon a woman standing at the bank of a river. She needs to get across, but is unable to make it alone. The elder of the two monks picks her up and carries her through the rushing water. Once they’re all on the other side, the woman leaves the monks. The younger monk is stunned at these events. They’re not allowed to touch women so intimately, and he doesn’t know what to make of his friend’s behavior.
Finally, after stewing over the incident for several miles, he says to his traveling companion, “How could you touch that woman back at the river the way you did? Have you no respect for our vows?” The elder monk turns to his young friend and says gently, “Are you still carrying that woman? I put her down at the river bank over an hour ago.”
What stories about family are you carrying into this holiday season? So and so is quiet, therefore they must be angry with you. So and so is late, therefore they don’t care about you. There may even be some truth to the story, but it’s still a story. You choose whether you carry assumptions into the holidays or start afresh. Breathe new life into family by letting go of the stories and assumptions that drag you down.
2. Don’t take things personally
How much of the tension you feel around family are you making about yourself? It might not be about you at all. Take some cleansing breaths before seeing family. Breathe out drama. Breathe in acceptance.
An Irishman once came upon two people brawling in the street and asked, “Is this a private fight or can anyone get involved?”
Don’t you often do the same thing with family? When someone is pushing your buttons, most of the time they are involved in their own drama. Is there anything gained by getting involved? Just smile and breathe and move away.
If your progressive cousin is arguing with your conservative uncle and all you want is a relaxing time, then smile and breathe and leave them to it. It’s not about you.
You don’t need drama to feel alive and important. You are alive and important because you house God in your mind and body. Drama doesn’t help you to thrive. It distracts you from your essence as a vessel of peace in the world.
How do you differentiate between helpful feedback from family and unnecessary drama?
Picture yourself as a harp with all kinds of large and small debris swirling around you - words, feelings, innuendos, assumptions, drama. Some float toward you, passing right through the spaces between the strings, and glide on by. But others hit the strings, striking a chord that reverberates way back to your past, bringing up old hurts. It strikes a long, discordant note that jangles your nerves and throws you off balance. Ride out these encounters and try not to get so unnerved - try to settle and find your balance. First of all, notice what sticks and what passes you by. Notice what passes you by but don’t chase it. If something sticks, say to yourself, “Okay, what can I learn here to make beautiful music in the world?”
3. Speak the truth
Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Before you see family, breathe out pretense and breathe in authenticity. I believe that more good can come from working through even the harshest truth than concealing it behind a veil made up of spared feelings or saved face. Speak your mind, stand by your truth.
Know your own boundaries with family, be clear about them, and stick with them. Say to your nephew, “No you can’t smoke pot in our bathroom.” Say to your Neo-Con uncle, “No, I won’t stand for hatred in this house.”
There is a powerful scene in the movie The Family Stone. With all the Stone family home for the holidays, including a narrow minded and uptight new girlfriend (Sarah Jessica Parker), the dinner scene is explosive when the girl friend suggests that a gay couple should think twice about adopting a child in case the child becomes gay. She suggests that being gay is abnormal and is a challenge that people don’t need in life. Her opinion is like a red rag to a bull at this table. Various people around the table try to save the situation with humor, until Mr. Stone slams his fist on the table and says “Enough!” He won’t have this talk in his home.
Maybe there will come a time for you to say “enough!” this holiday season. Thrive in your own truth this season.
Vietnamese Zen Teacher Thich Nhat Hahn offers this reminder:
“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech . . . I vow to cultivate loving speech. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering . . . I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain, and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or community to break.”
4. Do your best
We’re all human and we all make mistakes. You might even make some mistakes with family this holiday season. Others might make mistakes with you. How forgiving will you be - with yourself and with others? With some combinations of people conflict is almost inevitable.
Do your best; and maybe your best this year will be just a fraction better than last year. But that will be enough. You are making progress.
In the words of the Tao Te Ching, “’Do your best then step back. This is the only path to peace.”
Before you see family, breathe out impossible expectations and breathe in acceptance.
In another movie, As Good as It Gets, Jack Nicholson plays a man with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. His name is Melvin. There’s a scene where Melvin is leaving the psychiatrist’s office. He enters the waiting room full of depressed patients. He looks at them and says, “What if this is as good as it gets?”
I want to add two words to his question, “for now”. What if this is as good as it gets for now? In the future it could be a whole lot better than this. If you work at not making assumptions, not taking things personally, speaking authentically and not buying into drama, the future will be a whole lot better. But what if this is as good as it gets for now?
When you are with family, ask yourself the question - What if this is as good as it gets for now? Your life experience to date brings you to this point. Your accumulated wisdom and strength are the resources with which you face the moment.
Choose to thrive this Holiday season. Choose to breathe new life and spirit into the traditions and relationships that are important to you. Even if they appear dead and lifeless, that just means the only way is up. So take one step towards improving the relationship. There is always room for improvement for all of us. Take some steps towards acceptance and let go of drama. You don’t need it. It doesn’t help you to thrive. It’s a distraction from your essential purpose on earth, which is to live and love fully and liberate others to do the same.
I honor acceptance in you, and celebrate your best. Namaste.
For Further Reflection (Questions that can be used privately or in groups):
1. What are your hot button issues when you are around family?
2. What steps will you take this Holiday season to thrive in relationships?
3. What steps will you take to care for your own well being this Holiday season?