Belief Clashes: Holiday Edition
Updated: Dec 24, 2019
The holidays bring families together, at least geographically. Religious clashes during this time are often disruptive to families. What can you do to prepare for a visit from relatives when your beliefs differ, or when yours have changed? Maybe they don't know yet, but close proximity over the holidays will reveal a previously forbidden relationship, a change in churches or lack of church attendance, a marital separation, or discontinuation of some religious rule or belief they think you still hold. How can you minimize conflict over religion during the holidays? Or should that even be your goal?
I went through several of these situations as I slowly, carefully removed myself from past constraints in my extremely conservative background. Some of them seem silly in our current culture but I faced, time and again, the disapproval of change. As do most of us, I wanted approval. I wanted to be understood. I wanted to enjoy family and the holidays.
1. Don't expect to be understood. You may decide to explain your reasons for change, and that's fine. Yet, don't expect them to understand. I had to remind myself sometimes that I had been in their shoes, looking at those who changed with concern and even judgment. You don't need to answer to them about your beliefs. It's okay to be misunderstood.
2. Protect yourself emotionally. If you're heading into a potentially toxic environment, limit your time. The holidays bring obligations of hours and days spent together, but you can still take a break by removing yourself from a conversation to take a walk, take a nap, read a book, watch a ballgame, play with the children. When my father would start one of his religious rants, one of my siblings would say, "Excuse me, I need to go to the restroom." It worked! If the situation brings anxiety, consider meeting in a restaurant, staying in a hotel or, for severe cases, not meeting at all. I knew I could spend 24 hours in a particular environment, but if the holiday gathering extended to 48 hours, I came away traumatized.
3. Dialogue openly. If they are open to dialogue (and you can usually tell whether or not this is true based on how much they interrupt you) then, by all means, explain yourself if you like. If you decide you want to discuss your differing beliefs, discuss fairly. This means conceding a point when it's a good one, listening until they finish their point, checking your own intensity. Did you hear them correctly? If you aren't sure, ask. Don't assume. Instead, address their best argument. In fact, even ask them what their best argument is so you know you are addressing it. If you don't have an answer at the moment, tell them you'll think about their point. You don't need to feel pressure to have a response for every objection.
4. Don't get trapped by shame and fear. If they choose to attack you as a person instead of discussing your position, you have a choice about continuing the conversation. Adults should be able to separate people and ideas and if that's not where they are in their level of maturity, you don't need to waste your time trying to talk to them about that subject. Watch for triggers that activate shame and fear. Most religious views depend on these, yet this is probably part of the reason you made a change in your beliefs.
5. Be ready to find solace somewhere else. Find a person or a group who understands your changes and who will be there for you after exhausting family time. Some religious systems are crazy-making, just like families that harbor addictions. You may come away feeling like you are the crazy one. More likely, you were caught in the cogs of the wheel that keeps turning, especially when the family is together. Plan time with an understanding friend after your return.
6. Watch for kairos. Kairos is a rhetorical concept of waiting for a moment when time and opportunity come together. Maybe it will happen this holiday season; maybe it won't. Watch for signs (you don't need to rush this), when you can say what you need to say from a heart full of love, a head full of understanding, and a will full of confidence. This doesn't often happen at family holiday gatherings but in those in-between times.
7. Find something to enjoy. Maybe it's a hug from a nephew or a game of Scrabble. Maybe you see a cousin for the first time in years, or you share an inside joke with a sibling. Maybe it's the hand squeeze of your partner, or the kick under the table to keep your thoughts to yourself. Maybe your team unexpectedly wins, or your grandfather unexpectedly tells you a story about his childhood, which you never heard before. Maybe it's just the food. It's the holidays--see if you can enjoy them on some level that brings refreshment to your life.
Perhaps your change will be an example to a niece for her future. This happened to me--when I watched my aunt during the holidays. She will never know how much she influenced me to be true to the changes I needed to make.