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A year of gratitude and grace

First slide

With Thanksgiving approaching, a popular TV host whose very name is Joy advised her audience to use the “beloved American food holiday” as an opportunity to engage those gathered around the table in contentious political debate. As I read a transcript of her advice, my heart sank. Why? Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we set up family gatherings as opportunities for provocation and polemics? What if, instead of a battle plan, we came up with a plan to enjoy one another throughout the holiday season? 

First, moderate your expectations. This doesn’t mean you need to lower your standards. It simply means that you challenge yourself to be open and gracious and to look for and appreciate the good in one another. And as you extend that grace to other people, extend it to yourself as well. Let go of “perfect” right from the beginning. Nothing happens as it does in a Hallmark movie; very rarely are all life’s knots untied in a two-hour segment before the snow starts to fall softly. Don’t expect perfection. Instead, anticipate that there will be misunderstandings and disagreements and disappointments. Every family is messy, but that doesn’t mean time together is without sweetness and even holy goodness.

Walk into this holiday season with your head held high. Look forward to it, even as you might lament holidays past. Whatever disappointed you in years gone by may not magically disappear this year, but every year does hold change. People grow and people mature and sometimes, sadly, people leave. The dynamics of every annual family gathering will be qualitatively different from one year to the next even as patterns of behavior and long-held traditions may remain nearly the same. Take an honest look at what you remember about past celebrations and see where you can change an attitude in order to contribute to a better outcome this year. Beyond that, let last year go. 

I disagree adamantly with Joy-the-contentious-holiday-host. Instead of waging war over the potatoes and gravy, consider adopting a policy of refraining from discussing unresolved family conflicts during holiday gatherings. Let the celebrations be comfort zones, where old-fashioned graciousness and civility are the safety nets that allow a diverse group of people to gather respectfully and appreciate one another, despite their differences. There is ample private time throughout the year to address difficult issues.

Acknowledge that logistics can be tricky. Everyone is not going to fit into the same spaces they did in years past—physically or emotionally. Invest some time into thinking through how time and space can be orchestrated in order to best serve everyone’s needs. Whether you are the host or the guest, be prepared to serve. Let “what can I do for you” be ever on your lips. Often, we have an expectation of the holidays being handed to us wrapped in a bow. If we adjust that expectation to one where we continually seek opportunities to love well, and we reframe our idea of a picture-perfect holiday to be the one where we endeavor to understand and to nurture above everything else, we are much less likely to be disappointed. We control how open-hearted and gracious we can be; no one else can pull those strings.

One last thing: don’t underestimate the power of a few minutes alone. When you step away to make time for yourself, you will be better able to process all that is happening around you, to keep things in perspective, and to adjust your responses as necessary. Don’t wait until there is a crisis to excuse yourself to be alone; plan for it. Go to the earliest Mass of the day every day and use the time in the car to be alone with your thoughts. Get out into the morning or evening air and take your rosary along to walk and pray. Before the season is fully upon us, consider what personal rituals you will commit to in order to better maintain inner peace. 

The holidays place formidable demands on women, in particular. In addition to all the ordinary emotional labor they are accustomed to doing, the long-held expectations to create holiday happiness for everyone in their circle, together with this new agenda mandated by the anti-joy Joys of the culture, can feel like a crushing burden at a time when being happy is the presumption. This is the right time to be counter-cultural. You don’t have to create the idyllic holiday, nor do you have to assent to a contentious catastrophe. All you have to do is plan to be fully present and openhearted; your agenda is nothing but gratitude and grace.

Foss, whose website is takeupandread.org, writes from Northern Virginia.

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© Arlington Catholic Herald 2019

@elizabethfoss