This is the time of year when the harsh reality of fractured families hits the hardest. Loneliness, anxiety, and depression rates spike during the holiday season when family stress collides with hopes for holiday fun. This is when we feel the most pressure to present the image of a happy family to others in our cards and social media posts. This is when family gatherings bring together people who don’t get along during the rest of the year, with relatives trying to be on their best behavior.
Despite family dysfunction, many of us hope that somehow, holiday magic will solve our family’s problems. But we can’t sugarcoat our fractured families as easily as icing a broken holiday cookie. It’s time to stop magical thinking and start pursuing holiday peace and joy in the midst of dysfunctional relationships. If I could revisit my younger self this holiday season, I would tell her to stop worrying about family brokenness that’s beyond her control and focus on the peace and joy that the holidays are meant to celebrate.
Ever since I was a girl, I’ve dreaded the holiday season even as I’ve looked forward to it, because of the tension in my family. My parents divorced when I was 7 years old, setting in motion a stressful lifestyle for me that included listening to arguments and shuttling between houses. The holidays, while full of fun, exacerbated that stress by intensifying the arguments and complicating an already complex schedule. Figuring out who I would visit for the holidays, and when, became a tug of war in which I felt like a rope being pulled too hard. Eating chocolate Santas and singing along to holiday carols on the radio distracted me somewhat from the stress. But no amount of holiday magic could dissolve the sadness that settled on my soul like a black lump of coal in a stocking. Now my family has even more fractures in it, from a wide variety of misunderstandings, conflicts, and grudges. So as an adult, I still have never experienced the elusive magical family holiday I dreamed about as a girl. Now, however, I can see the situation through the eyes of grace and confidence.
As an adult, I’ve learned that everyone makes mistakes but not everyone chooses to forgive, learn, or grow afterward. Sometimes family messes simply aren’t cleaned up because of selfishness and immaturity. People may reject each other, even though we all have priceless value. Family members may just not care about changing, and we can’t change them. But we can change ourselves. Even when others choose to persist in the mess, we can still make the choice to rise above our messy families by focusing on love.
God’s perfect love is available to all of us. I find my peace and joy from connecting with that great gift. I’ve accepted that my holiday season will likely contain some pain that I simply can’t do anything to change. But that’s not a resignation; that’s a relief. I’m able to relax, having turned off the pressure of trying to make the family that I want happen, or of trying to pretend that it exists during the holidays. Instead, I can focus on the reality that there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the holidays without family stress. So this holiday season, don’t worry about the brokenness in your family or try to change the people in it. Focus on the reasons why you’re celebrating the holidays in the first place. Peace and joy aren’t dependent on circumstances; they’re values you can pursue and experience no matter what.
Whitney Hopler works as Communications Director at George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being (CWB) and has written for many media organizations, from About.com to the Washington Post. Connect with Whitney on Twitter and connect with CWB on Twitter and Facebook.