Finding gratitude in dinner table debates

Earlier in the year, I was in a class where discussion turned to a sensitive topic. As various Canadians’ views of the issue were dissected, I saw one of my classmates become upset. I asked her during the class break if she wanted to talk. Her family lives in a similar region of the country to where some of my family live, and I had a hunch she might be imagining the same scene I was picturing. I was thinking about how much differently my relatives might be looking at the same issue our class was discussing, and my classmate confirmed she was thinking the same thing. We spoke briefly about what it’s like to hold different views than the people we love.

Months later and just before Christmas, I was talking to another friend about the kinds of issues I expected might arise around the dinner table over the holidays. As many people know – and this is true for a wide variety of reasons – holidays can be tricky when you feel like the odd one out.

But as the last few days unfolded, my worries proved unnecessary. In fact, I’m feeling pretty lucky.

When I had that recent conversation with my friend, I remembered someone we both know who had been belittled by a family member because of her different way of seeing a particular social issue.

While I’ve seen lots of disagreements (and potential for disagreement) show up to dinner with my family over the years,* I don’t think any of these debates ever involved someone attacking me. I don’t think any of my relatives have ever pointed fingers at me and told me I’m lacking something because of our different perspectives. In fact, if anyone feels attacked, it’s probably my relatives. (That’s a tough thing to recognize, but there it is. I’m not known for my patience.)

During holidays and family gatherings, I’ve heard many things over the years that I find offensive – or blatantly wrong. But I’m starting to think there are things to celebrate here, or at least feel grateful for. Here are a few of those things:

  • I know we can disagree and still love each other. If accusatory words start flying, it’s usually about the person’s ideas, not their character or their value as a person.
  • I don’t live in an echo chamber. As the saying goes, you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. I’ve typically chosen friends with views similar to mine. But my family members tend to see things differently, which means I’m exposed to a variety of ideas and ways of thinking. And I generally believe the variety is both positive and useful.
  • Our core values aren’t usually that different. If opinions come from a combination of values, assumptions, experiences, and information, then it’s probably important to consider where differences of opinion come from. I can’t imagine why someone would choose to get their information from Fox News, but that doesn’t mean their underlying values are necessarily different than mine. Recognizing the potential similarity instead of focusing on the differences might build a better foundation.
  • The discussion is happening! If we didn’t talk about any of the things that cause the disagreements, we’d be missing out on a lot of important topics. I think I’d rather disagree than spend the holidays in silence, or talking about the weather.being-taught-to-avoid-talking-about-politics-and-religion-has-29376079
  • We’re in safe enough conditions for all the above points to exist. Here, I’m thinking about all the families in the world where disagreement could have dire consequences. I can feel uncomfortable while arguing over turkey, but I don’t have to worry about anyone informing on me to the secret police. Or to give a more local example, my life is such that I don’t have to worry that someone else I love – perhaps a spouse or a child – is being hurt or targeted by my relatives’ views.

I certainly don’t mean to undermine the very real concerns that some people have with their family dynamics. But this holiday season, it’s been helpful for me to think about how things work in my family – and they’re pretty good, overall. (Also, while I didn’t realize it at the time, thinking about the above list of things I’m grateful for fits well into this set of holiday strategies by Gretchen Rubin, which contains some gems).

Admittedly, my list above has not usually been the first thing that comes to mind when I find myself riled up; I usually react way too quickly. I wish I could be more like my mom and stepmom, who both seem to find ways of validating multiple views at once – while still offering their own moderating perspectives. Like I said when I named this blog, we never have things totally figured out – there are always more ideas to be heard.

I’m still working on my listening, and how to talk more openly and invitingly about the things I believe. But in the meantime – by being conscious of the above list during the past week – I found myself focusing more on the positive, empathetic statements that came from my relatives. Maybe we were all in a different headspace, but I didn’t find much to disagree with after all.

Maybe There's More



*The photo on this page is an example of one of those days — it’s actually from Thanksgiving 2018, when we found ourselves having a few heated debates.


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