All across America today, as families and friends gather over heaping plates of food, they are arguing or disagreeing or pushing down their feelings about the offensive things being said across the table. Everyone seems to have a grandma or an uncle or a brother-in-law who thinks outrageous things and finds in a holiday meal an excellent platform to talk about them. So often the dessert hasn’t been served by the time the conversation devolves into a full on argument or seething frustration.
Why does it have to be so hard?
Because families contains a variety of ingredients to make them what they are and family gatherings bring out a rare combination of diversity and intimacy. At a minimum, each family contains a difference in age. We are all products of our surroundings and it is fundamentally impossible for two people from different generations to come ready-made with the same ideas about everything. Throw that into the pot.
For another thing, families actual create their own diversity. Even if one child follows his mother or father’s footsteps exactly, he will be different from the other parent, and the other siblings will be different from him. Kids find their identities by cleaving off of their siblings, and even if the rest of the world would find them similar, amongst themselves they are a special sort of unique. Family dynamics require different roles and characters, so even people who are otherwise alike might fall into roles dictated by their age, rank and gender. Throw that in too.
The most seasoning comes from the influences of the outside world. Every family has someone who is unemployed or underemployed or somehow not “living up to their full potential.” Every family has someone else who is still single and shouldn’t be or who chose the wrong mate or is otherwise making grave decisions that the family could correct quite easily if only the person would listen. Usually there are differences in political or religious beliefs that have a way of making themselves known around the dinner table. If two people find something to agree on, the longer they talk, the more likely they are to uncover something that someone else disagrees with. That’s just how it goes.
Some people avoid the situation altogether because can’t stand to be surrounded by such ignorance and closed-mindedness. But this is a huge mistake.
Growing up means often means moving out, and moving out exposes people to experiences that aren’t shared with their family members. Over time, the relocation has the combined effect of changing a person’s opinions and collecting them with other like-minded people. When people have deep conversations about their beliefs and opinions, they tend to be talking to people who already more or less agree with them. It can become easy to believe that everyone thinks and feels the same you do.
Family gatherings bring together people who have been spiced by individual life experiences into a shared space. These are rare opportunities to think beyond ourselves, to relate to other people, to gain a new perspective through the forced unifier of common experience. If, at a minimum, we asked ourselves “how can they actually believe that?” every time there was a disagreement, we might really learn something. That your idiot uncle might teach you something can be a tough prospect to swallow for someone who is already as enlightened as we all secretly think we are, but it’s more valuable than all the agreeing and better for you than pumpkin pie.