Some of us are headed into this holiday season with trepidation. It’s not the long lines, the expenses, or even the hustle-bustle that’s got us down. It’s the worry about uncomfortable conversations we anticipate having with relatives we love, but who don’t see eye to eye with us on issues of great importance. Issues such as, oh, I don’t know, the general political climate, the media, climate change, sexual harassment, kneeling during national anthems, Russia, statues, gun control, walls, and Taxes– to name a few thorny topics.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I prepared for an interview on Sirius 127 Progress Channel’s Trumpsgiving Special (hosted by my brother, Dean Obeidallah, airing tonight at 8pm and again Thxgiving morning, 8am). Here’s what I got. My first suggestion is, call a Truce. It’s Thanksgiving, after all, and the focus is on promoting togetherness and connection. Much like the warring Germans and British soldiers did on Christmas Day 1914 during WWI, a spontaneous truce on killing each other was called, and instead, a jovial game of soccer ensued. I guess they went back to harming each other the next day, but my point is, at least for that special day, a truce was honored. If they could do it, with stakes as high as they were, I’m pretty sure we can pull it off, if we want to.
But, let’s suppose that just doesn’t feel right to you. Maybe you feel we are in this mess because people didn’t talk to each other before, and so you feel the pressure to do so now. Maybe you feel that you can’t tolerate one more offensive comment from anyone, and so if one comes up, you’re going to nip it in the bud. Or maybe you just know that, despite your best efforts to avoid the topics, things will come up, like you’ll be watching the game, and a player will kneel during the anthem–and you’ll feel it necessary to say something in response to someone else’s comment.
Before you give Aunt Bessie a piece of your mind, I have a question for you: What is your intention in talking to her about your perspective? If it is to convince her that her perspective is wrong and your’s is right, pause. It’s unlikely that’ll produce noteworthy results, except perhaps to call it an early night. Rather, as Daniel Goleman (author of Emotional Intelligence) points out, when we are criticized, we move into fight, flight, or freeze mode. Though not always rational, we (and therefore Aunt Bessie, too), may feel that our survival is being threatened. This would likely be because our identity is at stake. We don’t usually say, “I believe in Republican/Democrat Platforms”, we say, “I AM a Democrat or I AM a Republican”. Once our identity is involved, our sense of self is implicated, as noted by the Harvard Negotiation Project. In that situation, how could we not work to preserve what feels like a precious aspect of ourselves? It’s not surprising that it calls up a good deal of fear. You might have noticed that when we are in fear-mode, a few tricky reactions come up. For one, we may attack back. Or we may get the hell out of there. Or we may just glaze over. (Fight, Flight, or Freeze, respectively). It’s just the habitual reactions that show up when we are activated, and we believe that these responses will protect us. But, often they just escalate things and make them worse.
When the feelings of anger or anxiety come up, notice them and then, as Michael Singer would suggest, lean back away from them. Recognize how the feelings want to pull you into your typical habitual response, and instead of going for the ride with the habit, take the emotions as a signal to get more centered. Deep breathing and relaxing the soles of your feet are two ways to help your physiology reset and produce a more even-keel state within you. She may rant and rant about her point of view, but since the conversation is unlikely to result in any material change, what is the point of getting either of you frazzled? As open-minded as perhaps you both are (on a good day), the chances that either of you will switch teams is slim.
However, you may be able to find common ground. Look for those moments where you feel that there is an opening to agree on something that connects you. For instance, you may both want a safer America. The way you want to do it is through increased gun control; the way she wants to do it is through erecting a wall and dissolving DACA. Though you may feel upset that she holds a different opinion, you can focus on the fact that you both want the same goal, though you’re going about it in dramatically different ways.
If you must go head to head in a conversation, and you’re doing your best to stay centered, remember that research has shown that willpower is a finite entity and must be recharged. Baumeister showed that willpower gets depleted the more you use it. If you’re fighting with someone but maintaining your cool, and they keep coming at you, and you keep maintaining your cool, and they keep coming, at some point, you may run out of coolant. So, be exquisitely present with your internal state so that you can recognize when your “internal coolant” is nearing empty. It’s a sign to take a break, maybe for a short while, maybe for the rest of the night, or even longer in some cases.
Finally, as Brother David Steindl-Rast reminds us, you can love your enemies (not that Aunt Bessie is your enemy, but she might hold enemy lines), and still fight the good fight. Fight it in ways that are politically savvy and effective: Vote. Donate and support your candidates. Volunteer at non-profit organizations that are principally aligned with your perspective. Create your own organization to offer a solution to today’s troubles.
I firmly believe that we all belong here, simply by virtue of being human beings. Each and every one of us has that Divine light within us. Not only do we all belong here, but we actually all belong to each other, and we each have something important to contribute. And though these challenging times can be stressful, they’re important opportunities for us to remember, even if we are on the opposite sides of the political chasm, we each have a beautiful light shining through, and there is a deep love between each of us.
Wishing you a season of gratitude, peace, and restoration.