That hallowed time of year is back when we come together as one to give thanks, eat cherished, coma-inducing dishes and ... brace ourselves for whatever Uncle Jerry will say next about what’s going on in Washington.
If you’re dreading more than the candied yams, you’re not alone.
This most American of holidays is serving up increasingly bitter American fare as politically divided branches of the family mimic the national partisan divide around the table. No longer are we the Pilgrims and Indians, the out-of-town cousins and the in-town hosts. Instead, we are steadfast reds or blues, loyal Trumpers and Never Trumpers. And regardless, we’re totally, completely, without question in the right.
It’s a recipe for conflict, of course, because it’s hard to love people whose ideas you despise and yet hard to hate them when they’ve brought the green bean casserole and, mmm, green bean casserole.
Sometimes it’s just easier to stay away, as families appeared to do last year, according to a dismal study that paired cellphone location data with precinct level voting data on Thanksgiving Day 2016. People pulled the plug sooner on their visits, which caused the Washington Post to say: “Politics really is ruining Thanksgiving.”
But don’t clear the table yet. We can have our pumpkin cheesecake and eat it too. A local mediation expert and a national group whose aim is to depolarize America offer concrete suggestions for navigating difficult conversations and, therefore, surviving Thanksgiving with loved ones.
If anyone can make red and blue families see purple, it’s Mary Lee Brock, who has gotten divorcing spouses to work out parenting plans. Brock is a counselor by training, professor by trade and assistant director of Creighton University’s Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Program.
Brock suggests this: Listen. Be curious instead of reactive. Be honest but not mean. Engage instead of resolve. And think bigger-picture. Is it more important to be right? Or to have family relationships?
It’s hard to do, naturally, the way all hard things are — like passing on pecan pie, that second glass of red wine and the urge to check Twitter. Which is why Brock suggests prepping for the dinner.
This means really reflecting on what the goal of Thanksgiving dinner is — and is not. It also means coming up with Other Topics. For instance, shared memories, shared interests, upcoming vacations. Or, if all else fails, the Huskers. But save that for emergencies, because even THAT topic can induce indigestion and nausea.
Also, practice. Prepare yourself for Aunt Susie trashing your pet cause or Uncle David striking up the Guilt Trip Chorus. Know what will set you off and vow not to go there. Just breathe deeply and say in your head: I still love these people. I still love these people. I still love these people.
This doesn’t mean you have to agree with something that appalls you.
Instead of a) sighing or b) refilling your wine glass to the tippy-top or c) heading for the TV even though you hate football, you can try d): “We look at things differently. I’m going to come from a (liberal/conservative) point of view; help me understand why you think the way you do.” Or: “Wow, you really feel strongly about that” or “I can see this frustrates you.”
Brock said what people want most is to be heard. Where we get tripped up is in our expectation for resolution — something not likely to happen among people who feel strongly about opposite sides of an issue.
“I would never liken a relative at the Thanksgiving table to a young child,” Brock said. “But oftentimes when you do an acknowledgment with a young kid who is frustrated, you can see that visceral response. Their shoulders relax. Their breathing changes. They’ve felt heard, they’ve felt respected, and you move the dialogue along.”
If this sounds hard to do, well, it is. But Brock offers this tip: Approach the issue with a scientist’s distance and sense of curiosity.
A new national group provides step-by-step instructions not only for surviving your family Thanksgiving but also for getting along in general. It is called Better Angels, in reference to President Lincoln’s plea on the eve of the Civil War to look beyond our differences and be swayed “by the better angels of our nature.”
Launched in 2016, the group describes itself as a bipartisan citizens movement “to unify our divided nation.” The group went to 10 states this year and hopes to add Nebraska in 2018. It uses family therapy to advise red and blue Americans about how to work through thorny political issues to achieve better understanding.
Its four-page skills worksheet is worth looking up. Better Angels offers specific verbiage to handle relative rants and general advice like being willing to critique your own side while saying something positive about the other side. A blue person might say: “I think Democrats have been out of touch with a lot of people in rural communities. ... Trump picked up on that.” A red person might say: “I think liberals have done a better job of connecting with minority groups.”
Notice that red or blue, the speaker says “I think,” which is another important tip.
A cynical person might read the Better Angels tips and beg for the “Saturday Night Live” treatment of the earnestness. A thoughtful person might find it really useful.
Brock, the Creighton mediator, said Thanksgiving dinner is a great chance to better understand one another.
“It’s really good to have these issues raised. We just kind of need to work through it even though it can make our stomachs flip,” she said. “It makes families and communities stronger ... even if we look at things differently.”
Worth trying. If not for family peace, then for keeping your stomach for the best meal of the year. No sense in ruining perfectly good mashed potatoes and gravy.