Thought of the Day. Family Conflict (Part I): How the Past Affects The Present
Passover was a dreaded holiday for me as a teenager growing up in Allentown, Pennsylvania. It was a time when my uncle, who thought of himself as a “lay Rabbi,” rose at the head of the table and straightened himself out as if he was the Chief Rabbi in the grandest synagogue in Europe. He ceremoniously opened the Haggadah, the text recited at the Seder on the first two nights of the Jewish Passover.
As he began reciting in Hebrew the narrative of the Jewish exodus from Egypt, my aunt looked adoringly at him. At the other end of the table, my mother rolled her eyes, my father grumbled curses under his breath, and I pretended the conflict and anger I saw didn’t exist. In this week’s three-part series, I’ll share some of my thoughts on the nature of family conflicts occurring at holiday gatherings.
Family Conflict and Reduced Inhibition and Expectations
Family gatherings during holidays are supposed to be happy events where we shove personal issues to the side, forgive past wrongs, and the “good” of the family is most important. The expectation is what happened in the past is irrelevant now, and the joy of the moment; Passover, Easter, or other holidays will sooth over unskillful behaviors as warm milk does to an upset stomach. Neither anecdotes are always successful.
Our Present is Based on Our Past
We don’t live in a vacuum where our lives were immaculately conceived. You don’t need to believe in Freudian psychology to understand what a person does in the present carries with them their past.
I’m sure my uncle’s love of the family during the Passover Seder was genuine. For a brief time, he was able to reinterpret or ignore how his past behaviors hurt the family. Unfortunately, those on the receiving end couldn’t forget. Regardless of how genuine his love, my parents couldn’t go beyond his past.
We would like to think the joy of a holiday or it’s greater meaning will overshadow “petty” disagreements. In the 1960’s many sociologists wrote about the role of rising expectations in social turmoil. They believed inequities and injustices weren’t as important in creating conflicts as was the belief things could be changed.
It may be prudent as you approach the new holiday season to adjust your expectations of what’s possible during your family gathering. You may not have a “wanna-be” Rabbi in your family, but don’t expect your cousin’s irksome behaviors that irritated you forever to vanish because you wish they will.
In the next part of this three-part series, I’ll talk about why family truths are always relative. In the final part, I’ll suggest some attitudinal adjustments that worked in my counseling and coaching of families dealing with crises.
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