It doesn’t matter which one. Fourth of July, Thanksgiving… It could be any one in a long line of holidays. The conversation is ambiguous and about nothing in particular.
Tempers flare over vague sentence fragments. One character threatens to leave the room, standing, snapping her napkin in her lap, crinkling her face into a frown.
The others around the table rally together to keep her in the mix. The chorus persuades her and she returns to her seat. When she sits, the whole thing starts again.
How many times have you found yourself in a similar situation? Who hasn’t? When it happens to me, I have a hard time letting it roll off my back.
My usual MO is to try and fix things, watching them get bigger and bigger with each attempt. Then, of course, they blow up in my face, regardless of how noble I think my efforts are.
One day, I figured I would get outside of the feedback loop by phoning a friend for advice. Luckily, his input actually was a bolt from the blue.
He read a Thomas Moore quote to me from the book, “Care of the Soul.”
On the reality of family, Moore writes: “It always has its shadow, no matter how much we wish otherwise. If we don’t grasp this mystery, the soulfulness that family has to offer each of us will be spirited away in hygienic notions of what a family should be.”
Moore seemed to be saying that if you are constantly trying to fix your family, you’ll miss what it has to offer. I’m always trying to fix things and smooth over rough patches. Leaving them alone? It was a notion that would have never crossed my mind.
How could not fixing things make them better? I wondered.
Picture a family gathering. But picture it before the argument scene depicted in the SNL skit above happens. See your parents, siblings, aunts and uncles coming up the sidewalk to your front door, smiling and waving hello. What are they carrying? Food that they made? Desserts to share? Beer and wine? How do you feel?
I’m usually filled with happiness in these moments. I’m not even thinking of things to say to them or what I’ll be serving them. I am just standing in my front door, waving back, peeking out to the cars to see who is getting out.
Moments like this are the reasons I scrub the house and prepare food and they are the reason that I will continue to do it, year after year no matter how much money parties cost, no matter how much cleanup is involved.
Sure, as the party goes on, there will be pressure to please. Wrong things will be said. There might even be a dinner scene like the SNL skit. But how do such entanglements happen? Usually our faux pas stem from our expectations, our hopes and concerns. Our pride and the desire to impress get in the way.
When confusion is in the air and emotions are running high, is that the right time to iron things out? Going a step further, do things really need to be ironed out? How much of it is even under our control?
Moore also said: “By ‘getting to the root’ of present problems in family background, we hope to understand what is going on, and in that understanding we hope to find a cure. But care of the soul doesn’t require fixing the family or becoming free of it or interpreting its pathology. We may need simply to recover soul by reflecting deeply on the soul events that have taken place in the crucible of the family.”
That is real life.
By trying to make the whole of our experiences into Norman Rockwell-like moments, we are cropping too much out of the picture. What if we were to take pride in our family stories, even the ugly ones?
Might there be less internal conflict and less shame? Would it make it easier for us to share our passions and struggles? Who knows? That is not the way families operate.
But if I didn’t run so fast from the less-than-perfect moments, if I didn’t put so much energy into smoothing over the rough patches, wouldn’t it be easier to at least see things for what they really are?