Let’s talk about the Optimist in the room
“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” G.K. Chesterton
By Amelia Buckley
The holiday season kicks off in the autumn with Thanksgiving, and extends through the New Year in January. If we’re lucky, it’s a season filled with great food, family gatherings, and celebration. Thanksgiving with my family involves delicious pies made by my mother (nobody can decide on one flavor so there are usually four), my dad’s famous mashed potatoes with the perfect amount of butter, and the scent of turkey wafting delicately over the sound of Tom Petty classics (my family’s cooking music of choice). We have our nostalgic traditions, but we also have some pretty traditional squabbles. My sister will emerge wearing one of my sweaters, my mother will make one too many comments about my whip cream whisking technique, or a ghost of holiday fights past may rear its ugly head.
When I think of the holidays in general, I imagine the coming together of family and friends, gathering in their best fall colors or ugliest christmas sweaters, voices lifted in excited holiday talk and song, and of course, the soul-warming food. But getting together may also come with a fair helping of disagreements. Maybe an old grudge lingers in the air or some well-meaning relative asks one too many times why you’re spending yet another Thanksgiving single. Unfortunately, when we let a controversial political topic or ancient unhealed feud get away from us at the holiday table, resentment can build before the pie is even served.
And although the holidays are often a time of joy and gathering, they can also exacerbate feelings of loneliness. Research has found that half of all Americans report feelings of loneliness and holidays, when expectations of joy and family are at an all time high, can heighten these emotions. Buddhist teachings emphasize that the source of suffering is becoming attached to an idealized version of expected reality. When real life events fall short of high expectations, it can be difficult to process and accept this alternative version of joy.
So how can we balance the excitement we feel for family gathering (and fresh baked rolls) with the inevitable holiday speed bumps?
One way to deal is to come together with family and friends to have honest conversations about real solutions allow us to remain grounded on contentious issues and avoid the awkwardness of dancing around sticky conversation topics.
And maybe your gratitude is most strongly felt away from a dinner table all together. Whether you don’t have time to make it home for the holidays or are seeking to feel more connected to your community, volunteering at a shelter, taking a yoga class, or going for a long hike with your dog are all ways you might experience gratitude more deeply than at a formal meal. The joys of family are also not restricted to our blood relatives. Making family out of friends is one of the greatest human experiences. Wherever you find your kin, we encourage you to celebrate with those that make you feel most loved and grateful.
So how can you keep your turkey day focused on the positive? Whether you’re volunteering at church, hosting all your relatives, or braving a trek through an airport on the nation’s busiest travel day to see a loved one, here are a few tips for respectfully sharing the holiday, and keeping your equanimity, while dining with your family.
Our views are cultivated by our upbringing, experiences, and education. The beauty of the human experience is that no two are the same, but sometimes different viewpoints are hardest to accept when they come from those closest to us. Acknowledge the diversity of life experiences and approach differences with the goal of understanding and compromise, rather than “winning.” Keeping things respectful will make things less awkward for your other guests as well.
Focus on empathy over sympathy
Sympathizing with someone’s struggles means listening to their opinion and vocalizing that you understand. This Thanksgiving, we challenge you to go one step further to truly empathize with your table guests to not only hear them, but attempt to put yourself in their shoes and feel how they are feeling. You may only see your family once or twice a year, but in the other 363 days they are still living and experiencing a world different from your own. Try and understand the lives they live every Thursday, not just this Thursday.
Pick your battles
Sometimes people are so set in their ways, it’s not even worth discussing the issue. Most likely you’ll end up frustrated and they won’t have changed their opinion. If you know certain conversation topics will just end in gridlock, consider steering the conversation towards more nuanced waters.
Focus on tangible issues
Arguing about whether or not civilization is headed for demise isn’t productive for anyone. Talking about real issues means talking about real solutions. Consider how you would solve a world problem and ask others what their approach would be. Someone’s ideal solution can give you valuable insight into their analysis of the problem and you may be surprised at the innovation and compromise that can come out of disagreement.
As always, be optimistic.
This holiday season, as you reflect on what you’re grateful for, if you find yourself getting frustrated, remember how lucky you are to be surrounded by passionate people willing to discuss important global topics. Being vulnerable and grateful are powerful tools for staying positive. Finding the common ground in an argument and seeing the value in lively debate is what encourages us to keep questioning our world views and seeking out compromise. Focus not on what you disagree on, but where you can a middle ground of understanding.
In our Emissary Conversation event this past Saturday, our Impact Investor and Emissary Rinaldo Brutoco talked to us about the importance of our Optimist Daily Emissary family. Our readers share our passion for solutions, but as we approach the holiday season, we challenge you to take the optimistic solutions we discuss as readers and emissaries and share them with your family around the Thanksgiving table.
As we approach this holiday of gratitude, we are grateful for our found family of emissaries and readers. We cherish that we get to share optimism with you and wish you a happy Thanksgiving!
About the Author:
Amelia Buckley is a staff writer for the Optimist Daily and pursuing her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara. As a global studies major and lover of the outdoors, Amelia is passionate about crafting stories that focus on critical global issues that impact our environment and natural spaces.