All in the Family

Somehow, even though we are all thousands of miles apart this year, my family has still managed to enact the regulation Thanksgiving family drama. There are threats of divorce and memories of divorce, threats of silence and pleas for help, accusations of hurt feelings and protestations of innocence, all flying through the air like angry birds aiming for the little green pigs of the people we imagine each other to be. I would say that I'm bored with it, but here I am, still pulling back on the slingshot, still trying to aim my exploding crows at the walls that I think my family have built around themselves in order to protect themselves from each other.

And, yes, I'm angry. I have every right to be. It's their fault for not listening to me when I was trying to help. It's their fault for being so unwilling to talk about the hard stuff. It's their fault for building all those walls of ice and wood and stone, silence and privilege and shame, just so as to keep everyone out of each other's business. They're the ones who didn't want me around, so it's their fault if they feel abandoned and left out. See? I wanted to get together more often, I wanted to be there for the special occasions as well as the crises. But...well, why wasn't I, if I'm so angry about everything now?

I don't know. I have no idea whether, as a family, we are any more or less dysfunctional (whatever that means) than anyone else's. Sometimes it is hard not to feel like we've had more than our fair share of the usual modern familial woes: divorces and alcoholism, suicides and affairs, cancer and lawsuits and debts, not to mention untimely deaths. But don't all families go through these things? Is there anyone out there who doesn't have someone close to them who has been mentally ill or betrayed a spouse or hung out with drug addicts and strippers or lost a baby? How do we know whether what we're going through now, painful as it is, is at all unusual?

I have this fantasy of what it would be like to go home for the holidays. It would start with a road trip, just long enough to get us in the holiday mood. We'd arrive just at dusk, when the lights in the houses were just starting to come on. We'd get inside and find everyone else gathered round the living room, talking about plans for the next several days. Maybe we could go on a long walk in the country or spend a cold afternoon drinking eggnog and putting together a jigsaw puzzle or gather round the piano and sing songs. There would be smiles and hugs and kisses, everyone happy to see each other and share stories about what the past year had been like. And everyone would be happy for each other in his or her accomplishments, no jealousy or rivalries about who had done better--or worse--over the year. We would take comfort and energy from knowing that we were surrounded by others who loved and cared for us. And there wouldn't be any fights.

I know, and you have this property that you'd like to sell me in Florida. I said it was a fantasy. My sister wouldn't have a job (she works in the movie industry) if it weren't for the fact that people's fantasies are so often unfulfilled. How many movies can you think of that depend on just this scenario? Family gatherings are more or less recipes for drama, not comfort. So why do we keep thinking--hoping, imagining--that they will ever be otherwise? Daniel Gilbert (this week's self-help reading) would doubtless say because we aren't terribly good at imagining the future; we leave out all of the details and discount what others have told us about their experience in similar situations. But this doesn't explain why we keep going back even when we've had bad experiences time after time. Again, Gilbert might say that we misremember the past, editing out the details. But I have the details about previous holidays, good and bad. Why do I think that this time there will be only good?

Because we do all hope that, one day, things will get better. Everyone will grow up and learn to behave, we'll leave behind our rivalries and just interact like ordinary human beings, rather than ones who remember each other in diapers. So why don't we? Why do we persistently confound our best intentions about getting along? I have no idea. I've tried. But no matter what I do, I end up angry, battering myself against the fortresses of others' images of each other and themselves. I'm an idiot, they can build fortresses if they want to. But they better not blame me afterward for not being there to help.


  1. Gilbert's expose about how we just don't have a clear path to happiness makes sound sense. I found myself happily reading along, stumbling upon funny anecdote after intriguing illustration. He paints a clear picture, humorously approached, on how happiness happens to us rather than resulting from a planned experience. He's right of course: If we really knew what would make us happy, we'd all be much happier. Oddly enough, learning why and how we blindly search for happiness, often sabotaging our own efforts with ill-conceived plans and ideas, brings us closer to enjoying our lives. After reading his delightfully written and soundly researched gem, I now feel closer to making a path to my own happiness: let happiness erupt and enjoy its fleeting presence.

    Best Regards,
    S&D book publishers


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