Have you seen Home for the Holidays? It has become our annual tradition to watch it sometime the week of Thanksgiving. Just like the best family reunions, the film is neither totally comedy nor drama. It describes complicated family relationships with varying precision and dizzying caricature (it’s based on this essay). Though the aunt who wears a fruit loop necklace might seem on the surface too zany or improbable, I love the cheeky nod to how reunions can make you feel loved and trapped, bearing credible witness to the search for how you could be related to the people you love but might not like so much.
I believe there’s a dark thread running through the fabric of any family celebration, no matter how perfectly merry and bright it appears. If I pull the thread enough, it unravels, displaying the holes in my joy, such as my concerns over doing what is right and my insistence on making sure everyone is comfortable above all else.
I used to attempt to sew up these holes. When awkward pauses or disagreements presented themselves in conversation, I interjected. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I even pinpointed how difficult it has been for me to allow others to be subjected to unpleasant experiences. The older I get, the more I see we can’t spare people from suffering, and maybe we shouldn’t try. It could be that a little suffering goes a long way to teaching a lesson, and if I intervene, I rob the sufferer of their due education.
Wise philosophers, spiritual or otherwise, point out with certainty that suffering happens because of desire. To end suffering, you must stop wanting. Whenever I am suffering, I try to pick apart why this dictum cannot be true, why my suffering must be different. Eventually I come back around to the idea that we suffer when confronted with our lack of control. But our sense of control is an illusion to begin with; when I remember the illusion, I can begin the difficult task of letting go. “Just float,” as Holly Hunter says.
These days I see the beauty in leaving our messes the way they are. I make room in my comfort zone for pain amidst the pleasure. At my best, I neither unravel nor mend. How about you? How do you feel about suffering and family relationships? Are you gearing up for a Thanksgiving gathering this week? Just remember what Robert Frost wrote: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” And if your aunt wears a necklace made of fruit loops, I hope you’ll tell me all about it. I’ll pull up a chair and cut you a slice of heaven.
I’ll leave you last with this clip of an old McSweeney’s: “Everyone talks about the bickering relatives and the burnt yams, but few talk about taking a weekday to eat and nap and gossip with a sibling about another sibling. No one owns it. No focus group studies it. Just you and a mostly empty bowl of stuffing and no clean utensils, so use your fingers already.”
Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!
Author’s note: Pieces of this post appeared in an earlier blog post from 2011.