Nothing is more iconic at Christmas than the peaceful images of the Holy Family, flanked by docile barnyard animals, with Joseph and Mary kneeling in awe at the manger where rests the gentle baby Jesus.
Then there is your house. Baby screaming from playpen while his siblings squabble and the dog attacks low-hanging ornaments. Grandpa is nodding off in the recliner while Grandma is in the kitchen dispensing unsolicited advice on everything from boiling potatoes to child rearing. You dread the pending arrival of political opposites—your uncle and your college freshman. You are considering your options: selling tickets or calling the SWAT team.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Ray Guarendi, a regular on EWTN Radio and Television, has tips for diffusing family conflicts.
- You can get along with anyone if the time is limited. Do not get pulled into conflicts. Change the subject, or lightly and gently say something like, “OK you two, Christmas is a politics-free zone. Let’s talk about (pick something).” Have party games or other distractions available so that everyone can join in the fun.
- Quit personalizing situations. You know that an individual is nasty/sarcastic/mean etc. Why upset yourself by taking it personally? Consider that their comments are not about you, but rather about some other issue within them. Without being a doormat, understanding their point of view can help you create space between their comments and your sensitivities.
- There is no rule that says you have to come back at anyone no matter what they say—you do not have to respond. Consider where your anger is coming from: Are you protecting your ego? Do you really think you can straighten them out or change their mind? The annual family get-together is probably not the best time to attempt to change someone who has spent a lifetime with a particular point of view.
Father Brendan Manson, Pastor of St. Edward the Confessor Church in Dana Point makes a more pastoral case for patience.
- Reflect on how patient and forgiving God is with your sins and weaknesses. He freely forgives without limit and does not harbor a grudge. “Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?” (Mt. 18:33)
- Plan your response to difficult people now while you are calm. This will diffuse the stress that can build up in anticipation of the encounter, leaving you able to respond when the time comes in a rational and Christian way.
- Inherit a blessing. “Do not repay evil for evil or insult for insult. But, on the contrary, a blessing because to this you were called, that you may inherit a blessing.” (1 Pet. 3:9)
If all else fails, Dr. Guarendi suggests, “Consider the concept that you may, in fact, be the difficult one.” Father Brendan concurs, pointing to Scripture: “Why do you look at the speck of dust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Mt. 7:3)
Take some time to pray and reflect on the birth of a Savior who came for all of us—even your annoying relative. Many parishes have special Christmas prayer or music services, in addition to the celebration of the Mass, that can help put your mind in a more spiritual state. According to Father Brendan, “Pray to God. God created every single person in his image and likeness. Ask God to help you see him in those with whom you have difficulties.”
Warts and all, Merry Christmas!