By the time the summer nears its end I start looking forward to the changing of the seasons and the time of the year when my family comes together. I love having the kids (all five of them) along with their friends and significant others home. With them living in Nashville, Washington, DC, Winston-Salem, Fayetteville, and Broomfield, Colorado those occasions are rare. Within our small, albeit geographically dispersed circle everyone fits nicely when we are together. Each is individually happy and secure in their professional endeavors, and at the same time genuinely interested in the others' lives.
If that were the extent of my family interactions and I didn't have to travel, the holidays would be perfect, but like most families mine has that one person whose personality disrupts my nirvana. That one person who by blood alone is reluctantly invited into the family celebrations. Every year their behavior is not only anticipated, it is once again excused - never confronted and therefore destined to live on until death.
And so this year I asked myself: "Why have I accepted a behavior I find so toxic?" My natural inclination (at least this is how I see things) is to be kind and to make every attempt to get along. Most times I try for such a long time to just get along that by the time the toxicity overwhelms me my reaction becomes nuclear, and I find myself becoming Johnny Rambo figuratively burning the town to the ground.
Knowing how pointed I can be when I reach the nuclear option, I try my best to avoid it by confronting people long before I even approach that point. In essence I try to save myself from becoming that person, because when that happens the recipient of my years of failed tolerance never fully recovers from it. Even if every word I finally say is true and well-deserved, its sting hangs on in perpetuity. And to make things even worse, I'm even angrier at them because I blame them for making me get so ugly. Then there's the collateral damage with the rest of my family who for years has just looked the other way, and now can't un-see or un-hear what I did and now in their eyes I'm the bad guy.
During the holiday season at my daughter's request I went along with her to buy a car. After we had settled on a sales price with the car salesman we were turned over to another person to begin the long process of hearing the presentations of other options ranging from paint protection to extended warranties. Although my daughter politely told the gentleman explaining the benefits of the extended warranty that she wasn't interested he very condescendingly criticized her decision. Rather than letting his rude behavior go, I instantly told him his comment was offensive. That was it. And we moved on. It was then that I had my epiphany.
The quick confrontation came with virtually zero angst or baggage. I said what needed to be said, kept my cool, and moved on. Even though the salesman didn't apologize, or acknowledge my reaction, he knew our decision had been made and so he wrapped up his pitch without delay. It was wonderful. I didn't stew on it or lose sleep over it. I just let it go.
However with family, my approach has been to just join the rest and fake a laugh as we all say "that's just Cousin Eddie being Cousin Eddie." And while most everyone else seems to be able to shake it off year after year, I can't. I grind on it like a dog on a bone. Every new slight or insult builds on the rest until I can't even look at the person; greatly reducing my pleasure in being around those that mean the most to me because it deflects my attention from that positive aspect of having my family together.
Perhaps I find it harder to confront family because there's the risk of alienating them forever, whereas confronting an ill-behaved stranger poses little risk because who cares if you turn someone off you'll rarely, if ever, see again. But maybe I'd be better served to do just the opposite; tolerate more from someone I'll likely never see again, and tolerate less from someone I have to see if I care at all about family harmony.
So from now on, I'm going to ease my angst as I anticipate the holiday gatherings with family by confronting repugnant behavior head-on, without undue emotion and hostility. Besides, Cousin Eddie (or Edith) will never change if they aren't confronted. And although confronting rude or offensive behavior doesn't guarantee the change I want, at least it should minimize the likelihood of the nuclear option ever being reached. Because once that happens, not everyone comes back from that unchanged.