Whether you find it a season of joy, a season of dread, or something in between, the holidays often involve gatherings with “difficult” people. Uncle Joe tells inappropriate jokes. Cousin Laura gets preachy. Grandpa insists that everyone join the Libertarians. Those snarky teenagers pout or make fun of everyone in the room.
The natural tendency is to pull away. We’ve been down this road before. We know that when Grandpa brings up politics, an argument is close at hand. We know how Uncle Joe will brush us off when we tell him to clean up his humor. These seem like tired old soap operas. The plots are always the same, and the people never change. We want to look away.
Of course, keeping our distance is sometimes the right thing to do – when someone is deliberately hurtful or abusive. But most of the time, no one intends to hurt anyone else. Instead, each of us is just showing up as ourselves. Our quirky, flawed, and very human selves.
What then? Do we give up? Is there another option here?
What if we could look at these annoying people with fresh eyes? Just when we’re sure we know what’s going to happen next, what if we could see someone as if it were for the first time? As if we were watching a strange and fascinating creature we’ve never seen before?
The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki talked about this kind of fresh awareness in each moment as “beginner’s mind.” He would often remind his students, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.” It’s easy to decide we are experts in someone’s else’s flaws, and the relationship gets frozen right there.
Look at those familiar faces across the holiday table with fresh eyes, and you may be surprised at what you see. You may notice that Uncle Joe makes an off-color joke when he starts to feel left out of the conversation. Or that the snarky teen is easily embarrassed and hides behind sarcasm.
Beginner’s mind leaves us open to seeing the same old conversations in a new light. And sometimes, we get a glimpse of our similarities that cuts through our differences. We know what it’s like to feel left out, we remember how often we felt embarrassed as teenagers. Seeing those similarities opens us up to empathy and compassion. All at once that impossible person is no longer quite so impossible. Suddenly we get curious and ask the question that changes a tired old script into a real conversation.
Small moments, perhaps, but moments with far-reaching consequences. For us. For those around us. Our research from the Harvard Study of Adult Development continues to show that warm relationships don’t just matter, they’re vital. Our long-term health and happiness are tied to the strength of our relationships. Transforming a stand-off or a family feud into a solid connection heals everyone, not just psychologically, but also physically.
Suzuki had another recommendation for his students: “Treat every moment as your last. It is not preparation for something else.” If this were your last holiday season together, would you feel nothing but relief to be free of these difficult people?
Bring your beginner’s mind to your holiday gatherings. The possibilities will be endless.