Editor’s note: This Shrink Rap column is requested by readers every year. Please enjoy, and Happy Thanksgiving from Dr. Rick and all of us at The Pulse.
If you are someone who loves the idea of spending intimate, quality holiday time with your family, sitting around the Thanksgiving table with siblings, in-laws, aunts, uncles and assorted others, raise your drumstick high! Count your blessings because you may well be among the fortunate minority.
My best friend in California is like that. She has a terrific family. Sure, there’s an occasional affair or divorce scandal thrown in now and then for color. Or a young male cousin eschews the family business for a life in the theatre. But through ups and downs, they form a very loving (and fun-loving) clan. Once a year all the women go on a shopping, partying, beaching weekend, while all the men go on a camping, golfing, hunting-and-gathering weekend. Outsiders are welcome at their holiday tables, and there’s always a gift under the tree with my name on it.
But I don’t hear of too many stories like theirs. Partly because of my line of work, but also because I don’t think a lot of families genuinely get along so well. Too many unresolved issues and unspoken rivalries. Prickly histories. Big pink elephants in the middle of the room that no one talks about. A colleague once suggested to me that the term “dysfunctional family” is a redundancy, and I’m apt to agree.
Let’s face it: there’s a degree of dysfunction in every family. Why? Several reasons: There’s no such thing as perfect parenting. Adult children screw up. Addictions happen. Illness and death take their psychological toll. And the human condition is such that it’s easier to maintain the status quo than it is to rock the boat in an attempt to create healthy change. Old habits die hard with us humans, and while it may be better to forgive, it’s also harder.
If you’re the black sheep of your family with, for instance, political, spiritual, sexual, or other leanings that diverge from the “accepted” clan rules—some spoken and some not—then you probably know how it feels to be the outsider. Maybe as a kid you had great fun spending summers playing volleyball and croquet in Grandmother’s back yard. But now maybe you’re the one they roll their eyes over. Maybe you’re the one who married out of your race or religion.
Or maybe you’re the one who’s gay.
Every family has ’em. Every single family. Read that again: Every. Single. Family. You may not know who for sure, but you have your suspicions. Scurry around the limbs of your family tree for a closer look, sweep aside your denial and you’ll find them. And for an unaccepted or closeted gay person, the holidays can be an exercise in prolonged agony. Fielding endless questions from Aunt Grace about when you’re going to find a nice girl (lesbians, read: nice boy) to settle down with. Enduring Uncle Hank’s homophobic jokes and cringing as your loved ones laugh. Sometimes you just can’t believe you come from these people. You’re from gay Pluto and they’re from Mars-a-phobia and you’re a galaxy away from seeing eye-to-eye on anything. So you drink more spiked punch, scarf down more tryptophan, and silently count the minutes till you’ve served your sentence.
Know anyone for whom this may be true? Someone you love and care about perhaps? Could you unknowingly be putting your son or daughter, niece or nephew through this? Because I gotta tell ya: a shocking number of families do. One thing that has become very clear to me since moving to the South is the tremendous struggle over “the gay thing.” Gay folks are struggling for understanding from their loved ones, and loved ones are struggling to reconcile their feelings for their own kin with the beliefs they are taught from the pulpit. It’s hard. And there aren’t easy answers. But there are questions for you to ask yourself. Are you an accepting person? A loving person? Someone open to opening the envelope a bit wider?
This Thanksgiving, here’s my advice for you. Be thankful for your brain, and think hard about how your words and deeds affect others. Be thankful for your sage inner voice, and come from a place of compassion every chance you get. Be thankful for those you love, and let them know it—often and without hesitation. Break bread, pass the yams, and raise a glass in honor of each and every person at your table, without prejudice.
Till next time, I leave you with two inspirations. A Native American saying: “The Creator never made anyone different without giving them something special.” And from Gandhi: “Be truthful, gentle, and fearless.”