Embrace the Dysfunction
June 24, 2014
Yes, you read that title correctly. Embrace the dysfunction. This is one of the best pieces of holiday advice I can give you. I am not talking about embracing pathological or destructive behavior. I am talking about embracing normal, universal, our-family-is-nuts and I-can’t-believe-I-have-to-do-the-holidays-again kind of dysfunction. Specifically I am encouraging you to do this as a way to lessen holiday stress and notice the love that often lies underneath what we call “dysfunction”.
Over the years I have read too-numerous-to-count articles about how to decrease holiday stress. Already this year the news channels are hi-lighting segments about how to make it through the holidays. Every magazine I saw while standing in line at the grocery store had a feature article on surviving the holidays, as if we need arsenals of stock-piled resources or dozens of first aid kits incase the holidays leave us in psychological intensive care. Heck, I’ve even led a lunch-and-learn workshop on holiday stress.
I think by now we all know the basics:
Don’t have too many sacred cows, just a few traditions that you can’t do without. Whether that is a certain food, a specific time when gifts are open, a religious service that is set in stone, or what decorations go on the mantle, only hold fast to a few important things and hold every thing else very loosely. Let go of traditions that are not serving you or your family any more.
Make lists and work ahead. Do a little bit week by week, day by day so that you have a rhythm that feels manageable.
Take care of yourself. Stick with your exercise routines, eat the foods that are good for you, get enough sleep, and watch the alcohol intake. Excess in anything usually comes at a cost.
Do something that reminds you what the holiday is really about. Whether that is shopping for a family that needs your help, volunteering to serve Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless, making a donation to the charity of your choice, connecting with friends you don’t see often enough, or being more thoughtful and intentional about keeping your mind on what matters, do those things.
Have fun. Have fun. Have fun. It there’s not enough fun going on you are sure to start resenting all the fuss.
But here’s the piece I think everyone misses. You have to embrace two things: the sheer ridiculousness of this time of year and your own family’s nuttiness.
Let’s start with the first thing. During the holiday season, starting with Thanksgiving and continuing through New Year’s Eve, we all act crazy and pretend it’s normal. There’s nothing normal about knocking ourselves out having company, driving hundreds of miles to see family, spending more money than we have to buy gifts that no one needs, attending party after party to eat more, drink more, and socialize more, staying up into the early morning in order get things done, putting more and more lights and decorations on our houses so that they look festive, and then, if what you are celebrating is Christmas, trying to teach the children and remember yourself that this holiday is all about Baby Jesus’ birth into the world. In the family therapy field we have a very clinical word for this. We call it crazy-making.
Embracing your family’s dysfunction is really a lesson in how love can win in the end and how being able to laugh at yourself and with others in transformational. I don’t know when it was decided that the normal quirkiness, uniqueness, and character that makes human beings human and therefore makes families families should be called “dysfunctional”, but for the past twenty years this term has been tossed around like a Frisbee. Truthfully, most families function because they have to. And most families are quite resourceful in finding ways to function and even to thrive. During the holidays, because of what I wrote about in the preceding paragraph, many people and families are a little “stressed” (remember that’s a euphemism for nuts) and therefore everyone is often not at his or her best. Maybe mom is exhausted because she is still insisting on making that yeast cake that her great grandmother made that takes three days to make, or dad is a little over his alcohol limit because he’s been to four parties in two days. Maybe granddad is worried that it might be his last Christmas and is either sentimental or depressed. Perhaps sister is hiding the fact that her marriage is fragile and brother hasn’t told anyone about his illness because neither one of them wants to ruin the holiday for everyone. In the midst of all of this, you can choose to focus on what makes your family work. Focus on what holds people together. Keep an eye out for the uniqueness of each person and for the wonder that is his or her life. Employ wonder and curiosity about family members. Laugh at yourself. Enjoy the process.
This is why I love the TV series Modern Family. Week after week we are treated to a family that in all secular ways would be labeled dysfunctional. And yet, and yet. The love that flows beneath this family’s craziness is palpable. The same is true for the award winning movie, Little Miss Sunshine. There is a high degree of nuttiness, and what could even be labeled pathology, present in this family’s story. And right there, right in the midst of it, is the love that binds them together, the sheer acceptance of each other’s quirkiness, of each other’s humanness. And that love wins. That love transforms them.
So don’t scoff at the dysfunction. Don’t run away from it. Embrace the dysfunction. The good, juicy stuff is right there in the middle of it.
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