Once again, Thanksgiving approaches. Along with figuring out the complex logistics of what to serve and who’ll bring what and what about the vegans and how much wine and where everyone will sleep and what questions are deep enough for meaningful discussion yet still fun, I begin the process of keying into my own gratitude. The list begins to take form in my head as I count all the many blessings in my life.
A healthy body, a mind that’s still curious—easy to see the gifts in these. Then there are the relationships that enrich with their continual support, extending care and love to me on a regular basis. Another no brainer. How lucky can you get?
Then I think about those other relationships. You know, the ones we all have if we’re human and we’ve lived long enough. The ones that challenge and provoke. The ones that highlight the differences among loved ones and call for the Wisdom of Solomon.
How do I feel about these? If I take the time to reflect on those moments that test me in what feels like an erosion of self, I am able to appreciate just how much light and learning they have brought into my life.
Can I be grateful for these “challenging” relationships? You bet. And, not surprisingly, these are the very relationships that are on my mind pre-holiday as I think about how to connect authentically – that is openly and honestly—with everyone in the family.
With the dubious honor of being the oldest member of the tribe, I’m wondering about the responsibilities of that role? Is it to encourage the future well-being of the family along the lines of the qualities that I consider important? And if so, how do I do it without shoving “my way” onto others?
This includes sharing my more than 30-year experience working with family systems, of having accumulated valuable knowledge that has helped make my behavior less automatic and my choices in life more intentional.
While I believe that by this time my kin knows what I value when it comes to family relationships, I am encouraged to describe more. I worry that I haven’t shared the nitty gritty of what I’ve learned from my life’s experiences, the good and the bad. That I haven’t yet shed real light on the differences that live in my family – the misunderstandings and heightened sensitivities that live amongst us as they do in every family. On the differences that can morph into distance and cutoff. Can I assist others to see what I see?
Dr. Suzanne Simard has studied trees for over 30 years in the Canadian forests. She has demonstrated evidence that the “mother” trees move information to their seedlings with signals that allow them to resist future stresses. In other words, trees pass wisdom on so that their offspring can better adapt to change. Her research has caught my attention.
As “matriarch” of this wild and woolly bunch I call my family, it would seem, according to Dr. Simard’s saplings, to be my responsibility to pass this wisdom down so that the system we call family has an optimal chance to adapt to change.
But, what does all this have to do with Thanksgiving dinner?
It’s easy really. I value family, so I love family gatherings. A holiday like Thanksgiving that creates lots of buzz and energy before and during, is right up my alley. Unfortunately, not everyone in the family relishes these gatherings as much as I do. No one can deny, though, that family gatherings present great opportunities to witness first-hand the connectiveness and the differences within the family.
I understand the differences. For many years, I experienced challenges, lived as the problem family-member, the outsider, disliked and cut out of the system with whom I sought connection. After many years, that has all changed. However, I wonder if this process will repeat itself in the next generation? Can I speed up the learning?
Dr. Murray Bowen has proven to be an invaluable guide for family challenges. When I am at my most frustrated with the relationships in my family, I reread his comment, "Conflict between two people will resolve automatically if both remain in emotional contact with a third person who can relate actively to both without taking sides with either." (Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, page 224).
"Without talking sides" requires me to stay actively neutral and not to preach to others about what they need to do. It means paying attention to the emotional triangles that I am a part of. That is how wisdom is effectively communicated over time.
Of course, more questions come as I wonder how exactly one stays actively neutral. For example, how do I respond to family members who criticize me for not taking a stand?
Regardless, I accept the challenge. I do believe it is my role, although a policy of non-engagement would certainly be the easier way out. Why shouldn’t I let sleeping dogs lie? Especially in lieu of how hard it is to pass wisdom along to anyone. Keep the peace at any cost was an unspoken maxim in my family of origin, so it is familiar. And clearly, focusing on the festive food and table would make it a lovelier holiday for all concerned.
But, I am getting older. Dr. Simard’s research is now stuck in my head and those dogs have slept long enough. Non-engagement favors peace over progress as Dr. Ed Friedman used to say, and I am opting for progress. For the evolution of this family.
If I consider it a cost-benefit analysis – the engaging in, but not taking sides in the family conflict— I am asking myself to consider and appreciate the long-term benefits over the short-term discomfort. Now, I ask myself if I am willing to take time away from all the hubbub of the table décor and the fabulous food and the light, fun banter to address what is the most important part of any holiday gathering, the emotional process in the family. A process which, in the end, determines the well-being of a family over generations.
Here it is in a nutshell. Families have differences and disagreements. That’s just family! When differences go unacknowledged, the family fails to build capacity, principally the ability to tolerate difference and still act as resource for one another.
I believe that the greatest gift I can pass on to my “seedlings” is the wisdom that in acknowledging conflict, managing one’s own reactions, and in learning to allow for differences and mistakes, we all help to build the family’s ability to adapt and thrive.
This Thanksgiving, I’m committed to doing my best toward that end by initiating open, honest, and "non-side taking" conversation. I will be engaging in talk that’s neutral and straight from the heart. One of the possible outcomes? The family may find the pumpkin pie not as sweet as in years gone by!
This Thanksgiving, I’ll end with a quote by Dr. Bowen:
When any member of an emotional system can control his own emotional reactiveness and accurately observe the functioning of the system and his/her part in it, and can avoid counter attacking when he is provoked and when he can maintain an active relationship with the other key members without withdrawing or becoming silent, the entire system will change in a series of predictable ways.
Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, page 486