Home for the Holidays: A Survival Guide, in Brief

I was raised in a culture of alcohol, violence and firearms. A man’s merit was based around these things. Substance abuse, fistfights, football, hockey, hunting—these seem to be the pillars of my homeland. (I was once punched in the back of my head so hard it’s a curious thing that I’m even alive—I then turned and broke my hand on the assailant’s face.) And while my father is sympathetic to marginalized groups, he is a product of his environment; he’s highly conservative. My cousins, however, go beyond that and have passionately subscribed to QAnon’s dangerous malarkey: They believe in the healing powers of Ivermectin, my aunt floods my sister’s inbox with anti-vaccine misinformation, etc. Her son, who’s my age and who has bipolar disorder, had a couple years ago gotten his hands on my dad’s AR-15, and retrieving it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life (I have tried, and failed, to describe the look in my cousin’s empty eyes as we sat alone in his house that night, when I leaned across the table and said, “I’m not leaving without that gun,” hands trembling in my lap; propped up in his bedroom closet, the gun was not only loaded but there was a round in the chamber).

We’ll all be home for the holidays.

My approach in the past has been abrasive confrontation—shutting down the conversation or remark, and then holding eye contact until the offending party looks away. This not only causes everyone in my periphery to squirm, but it spurs a lot of unnecessary stress inside me. 

I’ve been discussing this with my therapist, and she has urged me to practice patience with aggressive people, family or no, and to calmly and evenly diffuse the situation by steering a controversial subject into more comfortable waters. As head coach for Special Olympics basketball, I became adept at diffusing conflict frequently. But I was much more patient with my team than with my family.

My therapist is right. This is a highly sensitive time for everyone, regardless of political ideology. If there are conflicting beliefs (or flat-out nonsensical prejudices, etc.) around the holiday table, the best recourse is the most difficult: Show restraint and patience. Smile at the offending party, and calmly say something like, “Why don’t we talk about something a little less sensitive.” Then pivot: “Richard, how’s college going? Choose a major yet?” Attention redirected, just like that.

The fact is that, no matter what we believe, we’re not much different, molecularly. We simply choose to allow a different view to come in. If patience and tolerance were muscles, the holidays can feel like a marathon workout. Flex.

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