It’s one of the pleasures of getting older: saying “no” to people you don’t want to see or talk to. We’re encouraged, in fact, to end relationships that aren’t psychologically or emotionally healthy for us.
Except when it comes to families. Then suddenly we’re led to believe that by breaking this unwritten law, a terrible penalty will have to be paid.
A whole movie sub-genre, the dysfunctional family comedy, covers this phenomenon. You know the drill. Adult siblings who dislike each other are thrown together over a holiday or funeral. They make catty remarks, drink too much and overdose on bad memories. Sometimes a widowed parent gets in on the fun and games. Hilarity allegedly ensues.
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Being all too familiar with this kind of environment, I don’t understand the entertainment value this is supposed to provide for two hours, let alone a lifetime.
A Midlife Realization
Of my six siblings, I’m friendly with two. The others have been out of my life for anywhere from two to 15 years. I wish them no ill will. But only in my 50s did I realize that I no longer had to play the family game any more. I found the courage to think, “These people aren’t kind to me. They’re not respectful. They want to suck me back into the family madness. I don’t have to take this anymore.”
It was incredibly liberating; I recommend it to anyone else who finds themselves in the same leaky boat.
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Many of you have probably played the family game, even if you’d rather be doing something more pleasurable, like ironing your underwear, or — and here was the part your family never understood — being with friends. You know, the people you wanted to hang out with because you liked and respected each other.
Hugh Laurie’s painfully accurate Christmas dinner sketch on Saturday Night Live a few years back captured this situation perfectly. Every time an adult sibling, tired of the sniping, sarcasm and bickering, tried to leave the table, the others would shout, “Sit down! Sit down!”
They don’t say misery loves company for nothing, you know.
As expected, my refusing to play along anymore didn’t go over well with my family. To use another, more precise, metaphor, I was suddenly giving rewrites to actors who had been starring in a long-running melodrama they had memorized right down to the last punctuation mark. When they insisted I stick to the old script, I quit the show.
And those who understood how I felt? We’re still in regular touch. They understand. They respect me.
What About Forgiveness?
At the risk of going against everything society has led us to believe, I’m here to say that just because you grew up with somebody doesn’t mean you’re stuck with them forever. You aren’t Siamese twins in a Coney Island freak show, even if it feels like one.
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Some people might suggest I forgive my siblings. They don’t understand that I already have. Forgiveness, as I see it, is letting go of memories and, if necessary, people. I no longer dread the condescending phone call or hostile email. My anger toward them has disappeared. I’m happier and healthier for it. That’s real forgiveness.
I once told my daughter that if her mother and I ever gave her a reason to disown us, she had every right to walk away. Fortunately, I believe that day will never come, because she grew up in a warm, loving, supportive environment. And now that she’s in college, she remains in continuous touch with us, even if it’s just a quick "love you" emoticon on the iPad.
So this holiday season, when it’s time to carve the turkey or hang the brightest star upon the highest bough, I’ll be doing it with friends and loved ones. And I hope all my siblings will, too.
Isn’t that what holidays, and families, are supposed to be about?