Families, Holidays, and Chaos

§  In this perhaps the most divisive of years in America since our Civil War, I turn again to this essay, originally posted in 2017, and its theme of tolerance, kindness and courtesy–for what better behavior can we ever display?  §

Several years ago I stumbled across Dar William’s humorous and touching holiday song, “The Christians and the Pagans”. It was a good-natured glimpse into the utter chaos experienced by a  family of very dissimilar individuals, all trying to navigate their way through the minefield of a Christmas dinner without triggering nuclear meltdown.

I found it so delightful and thought-provoking that I forwarded the YouTube video link to most of my contacts. A few of them had encountered the song previously, but were glad to enjoy it again.  To others, as it had been to me, it was a revelation: a couple of laugh-out-loud verses woven into an authentic description of the bedlam relatives endure as they try to practice acceptance and caring for the sake of family at the holidays.

But, to my dismay, a couple of my contacts found the song very offensive. To say that I was bewildered at their reaction is an understatement.  This was a song about tolerance—about the triumph of love over personal differences—about the curiosity of children, as well as their inability to lie for the sake of tact (“The Emperor has no clothes!”)—about finding common ground in the midst of seeming contradictions.

Eventually it became clear to me that, for those who found the song distasteful, their rejection of it lay in the very fact that the song was, indeed, about tolerance: about a Christian family struggling to accept and love their non-Christian and unconventional relatives (it is implied, though never outright stated in the lyrics, that the young niece is in a lesbian partnership) at Christmastime. To some of my acquaintances, this concept—that Christians would willingly welcome the company of their non-Christian relatives at Christmas—was anathema.

It is a mindset that I cannot even begin to comprehend. I glory in the traditions of other cultures, so many of which celebrate a religious or secular holiday near the winter solstice.  Soyaluna, Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Solstice, The Return of the Wandering Goddess…to me, they are all beautiful traditions, evocative of the universality of the human spirit reaching out to the Divine.  To reject loved ones because they have chosen a different faith (or even no faith at all) is, to my way of thinking, so far from the genuine practice of Christianity, as I understand it, that it boggles the mind.

I was simply stunned to learn that some of my Christian acquaintances thought that their non-Christian counterparts would be encouraged to “find Jesus” if they were cast out and treated as lepers; that they believed children should be shielded from the spiritual differences of those they encounter, instead of simply receiving an explanation as to why the family believes other faiths to be in error. I could not comprehend their feeling that families should not at least try to join together in love and caring at the holidays, no matter what their dissimilarities.

It’s always seemed to me that the surest way to draw others into one’s own belief system is to demonstrate, by the very life one lives, that it is a faith worth emulating. How, I found myself asking, how could shunning loved ones, subjecting them to rejection and disgust and dislike—how could that in any way inspire them to accept the faith of those who cast them out?  Wouldn’t such behavior just convince them that their own spiritual path was the more noble choice?

In a question between my own belief system of that of others, I will always choose the path of learning; never relying on rumor or medieval bad press or intentional misinformation, but seeking to know the genuine principles surrounding a belief system (or even atheism) in order to find the thread of commonality woven into all that is the human spirit.

But, no matter what they do or do not believe, all those who demonstrate love, acceptance, kindness, courtesy and tolerance will always be welcomed to a seat at my holiday table.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Apples of Gold”, which may be found in the Archives dated November 20, 2019.

Feeling Our Feelings

§  Others will always endure life situations, grief, and loss far worse than anything each of us has borne or can even imagine  §

Some years ago, a few days before my birthday, I mentioned to the man I was then dating that each year when my birthday rolled around, I felt a little sad.  Before I could expound on what I meant (that my melancholy was comprised of many factors: regret for goals not achieved during the year; memories of past birthdays that were composed more of pain than of celebration; even the fear of aging without having accomplished anything more in life than “just getting by”), my date responded by forcefully rebuking me.  How could I have the gall to say this to him, he demanded angrily. His life was so much worse, so much difficult, than mine—in fact, than anything I had ever been through.  I had no reason, no right, to feel sad, he declared.

Although today I would mount a spirited rejoinder to his words, at the time, victimized by his constant emotional abuse of me, I was effectively muzzled.  I did not even dare offer in response the unpalatable truth that nothing in the problems he was enduring—and they were many—was the result of a capricious and unjust fate.  He had, by his own poor behavior, drawn every one of his difficulties down upon his own head.

But I kept this and my other thoughts to myself, and went home to cry in solitude.

That decade-old memory came sharply to mind, though, not long ago when an old friend lost both of her beloved pets within a few days of one another.  Heartbroken, she grieved openly for a long while—whereupon an unhelpful acquaintance pointed out to her that others had lost pets, too; in fact, in the middle of pandemic, others were enduring griefs that were far worse than mere pet loss.

Like a chain of disturbing links, that led me to remember another such situation–a family affair described to me by a friend—one a thousand times more awful than the loss of a pet.  The friend’s relative had given birth to a premature baby who survived only a few weeks. The young woman struggled through, but was, as are all who endure such an agonizing event, indelibly marked by it.  Yet, rather than giving her greater compassion toward others who were enduring pain, she instead crowned herself with a halo of martyrdom. When another family member confessed to seeking therapy for emotional challenges, the bereaved mother remarked scathingly, “Well, if I could get through what I did, I’m sure you can put up with a few little problems!”

I never find any of this—this scolding and shaming, the rebuking or minimizing another’s sorrow or difficulty–to be at all a helpful attitude, neither to the suffering individual, nor even to ourselves.  Yes, it is absolutely true that others can and will and do endure life situations, grief, and loss, far worse than anything each of us has borne or can even imagine. But none of that alters the truth of our individual situation, nor demands that we relinquish our own sadness on behalf of their pain.  If we were to always surrender our right to our feelings because some other person endured a worse event, then none of us, ever, would be permitted to feel or acknowledge any negative emotion, from the most minor upset to the most unbearable loss. 

Nor can we personally experience amother person’s response to a problem.  Even if we endure a similar situation, each of us will find that we not only have different reactions—reactions built both on our own past experiences and our personality—but different levels of support or abandonment in our travail, as well.  No two human beings, enduring precisely equivalent incidents, will have a comparable experience.

The truth of the matter is that someone, somewhere, always endures something worse than we do.  Someone is always in more pain: physical, mental, emotional.  Someone has always had a worse childhood, a more abusive spouse or devastating financial ruin, a graver illness, a more terrible addiction—something more wholly dreadful than anything we have known.  Their agony does not, however, deny us our own sorrow, or preclude our need to acknowledge unhappiness.

We are each diamonds, rough diamonds, with personal stress points that, if tapped, will not result in a strong, beautiful and faceted stone, but will instead shatter us into broken bits—mere shards of ourselves.  We need to acknowledge this fact when someone of our acquaintance speaks their sorrow aloud; to permit them to feel their feelings, fully and completely.  It is not necessary that we join them in their emotional low point.  All that is ever needed is to say, gently and with genuine compassion, “I can see that you’re troubled.”  “I really regret that you’re stressed.”  “I’m truly sorry that you are grieving.”  “I care that you feel sad.”

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “The Best Revenge, Part 2”, which you can find in the Archives from August 5, 2020.

The Person at the Other Fax Machine

§  The most terrifying moments of that awful video are to be found in the behavior of the person in the far right corner at the end of the clip.  §

I rarely speak of current events in this blog, since doing so would counter the purpose of my motto: May Something Said Here Touch Your Heart, Make You Laugh, or Give You Hope.  Few situations in our current world could achieve even one of those goals!

Yet there are some incidents so dreadful and obvious that it would be almost immoral to evade them. They cry out to be acknowledged, no matter how dissonant and disheartening the subject.  One of these situations is surely the horrific behavior of those who, in the guise of standing up for their rights, threaten or attack others who reproach them for not wearing face masks while in the middle of a worldwide plague, and contrary to the orders of local governments or the requests of private property owners.

I won’t take up the questions of whether masks are protective or not; whether they are a violation of one’s constitutional rights; or even whether they shield the wearer or those with whom one comes into contact.  Those matters can be endlessly debated.  The real question that I’ve uncovered (while watching countless videos of people being attacked or beaten or threatened) is why society has degenerated to such a point that these behaviors are accepted with little more than a shrug or a sigh.

I run through just a few of the incidents, all captured on camera, watching them play horrifically across the movie screen in my mind:

The hapless individual threatened by a livid man in a local Costco:  https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2020/07/08/i-feel-threatened-who-protects-shoppers-angry-anti-maskers/5389199002/
The elderly disabled veteran brutally punched over and over:  https://www.newsbreak.com/washington/spokane/news/1615195034250/see-it-suspect-caught-on-video-punching-elderly-disabled-veteran-during-mask-dispute-cops-say-perp-knocked-victim-unconscious-broke-his-jaw
And, perhaps worst of all, the middle-aged organ transplant recipient heaved into a bone-shattering crash by a hefty young woman:
https://www.nj.com/bergen/2020/07/woman-with-cane-violently-assaulted-at-nj-staples-after-asking-customer-to-wear-mask-video.html

Of all of them, I think this last incident shocked me the most—not because of the violence, since other videos and reports have displayed far more brutality; even fatalities.  But what I found most disturbing in the attack by Terri Thomas on Margot Kagan wasn’t the fact that a beefy young woman would brutally assault a slip a lady who was not only old enough to be her mother, but who probably weighed in at 95 pounds soaking wet. No, that sort of unconscionable behavior is all too common these days. Nor was I flabbergasted by the inaction of the employees and customers captured in the video (despite later claims that they rushed to the victim’s aid after the close of the surveillance clip).  Their immobility as the victim lay injured on the floor was shocking, but not surprising; compassion and courage–gallantry–are all too lacking in today’s society.

No, to me the most terrifying moments of that awful video are to be found in the behavior of the person (man? woman? I think it is a woman) in the far right corner at the end of the clip.  Watch carefully, and you will see that, as Ms. Thomas storms out of the store, this customer cautiously toes aside the fallen cubicle divider that was overturned in the fracas—pushes it away with a foot, and then calmly returns to her copying or faxing or whatever transaction she had been making before the violent altercation began.

To say that this display of utter indifference chilled me to the center of my soul would be to describe Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell as a cool spring breeze. I watched that entire disturbing video over and over, each time thinking perhaps I had missed something—that there was some mitigating factor, some reasonable excuse, that this person blithely turned aside and continued processing paper.

But there was none.  No mitigating factor, no reason, and certainly no excuse.

The very idea that someone—anyone—would turn their back upon the victim of a horrific assault and coolly continue running off copies, casually ignoring the entire situation, speaks terrifying volumes about the moral state of our populace.

Somewhere, someone has seen that video, and recognized the person at the fax machine.  Someone—some friend or family member, perhaps even a pastor or rabbi, has gazed (in horror? unsurprised?) at the behavior of that individual.  Perhaps they said something; tried to rebuke him or her.  Perhaps (more likely) not.

The rest of us will almost certainly never know who it was standing at the other fax machine that day.  And I doubt that individual will ever read this blog post.  But I say now, and will forever say, that their behavior was an affront to human decency as grave as any assault committed by those who threaten, slap, punch or spit upon their masked counterparts.

I’m sure The Faxing Person would shrug, as unconcerned by my opinion as they were for the victim of the assault. But their display of inhumanity was deplorable. And they should be ashamed. Quite thoroughly ashamed.

If you liked this essay, you might also enjoy “Political Civility”, in the Archives from July 3, 2019.  (On the other hand, you might absolutely hate it!)