by Dr. Sophia Park
Pastoral Clinical Mental Health Counseling
To say that 2020 has been a difficult year seems like a major understatement. Who could have seen this coming? The emergence of the highly contagious coronavirus, responsible for the ongoing pandemic, has forced continuous havoc in multiple segments of so many families’ lives. Working from home, along with, at times, the devastating loss of income, all the while helping children learn through virtual school, has created challenges. Transferring worship sites to our living rooms along with the multiple dimensions of family life converging into the same “home” space have created undue stress. The prolonging of the pandemic that seems to be growing exponentially with no clear end in sight is further permeating our family sanctuaries with raw anxiety.
While families are trying to preserve a sense of normalcy inside the boundaries of their homes, societal happenings outside have been anything but normal. The brutal killings by law enforcement of Black men and women combined with the fervor, and yes, the division of the election year, have laid bare peoples’ political sentiments and behaviors. The explosive and partisan political rhetoric has split relationships with any number of friends and families.
With the traditional Thanksgiving celebration approaching, many people are wondering how their holiday table will look different this year. Politicized views on the pandemic and the use of masks have split friends and family relationships. Moreover, the election results will have further solidified some bitter polarities and ruptures brooding within family relationships.
This year, who will be invited to the Thanksgiving table, and who will show up? Will there be a gathering, even virtually, or not? Many families are finding themselves at the crossroads, caught in-between, whether to participate in the family traditions or not. While the bitter partisanship in families has become a reality too obvious to ignore, this moment in time can also be an opportunity for families to re-think what it means to be family, re-imagine what it could be, and “re-member” the important people in their lives.
Many definitions of family exist. A common explanation understands family as persons who are tied together through their common biological, legal, cultural, and emotional history and their implied future together. However, I am drawn to how John Patton, a pastoral theologian, defines family through its function; namely, to care for the generation before, one’s own generation, and the generation after. To be human is to live in relationships. It is inherent that people need to belong, to give love and support, and to receive these gifts. Rather than focusing on who can be “family” and under what conditions, Patton’s definition is inclusive of the value and the universal need for family. Who are the people you have cared for? Who are you caring for now? Who will care for you?
In The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Stephanie Coontz examines two centuries of American family life and shatters a series of myths used to uphold idealized images of “family.” The reality of family life is much different. Thanksgiving, a holiday of coming together, is greeted by many families with anticipation or trepidation. Too often a pleasant, cordial, or at least contained, conversation at the family table can turn into an emotional frontline in an instant. Tempers flare and people react to one another, as emotional buttons are pushed. This is a familiar scene in all families, even many years after a member leaves home.
Family reunions continue to provide for predictable tense encounters because emotional reactivity to parents and other members remains unchanged. Beneath the outward appearance of “Leave it to Beaver” family life flows an emotional current. According to Murray Bowen, the founder of family systems theory, family dynamics are the result of families trying to manage the emotional current and the anxiety bubbling within the family system. The stress held in various places within the system gets absorbed and passed on to each other. As a result, family members emotionally react to each other’s words, rather than choosing to rationally respond. During Thanksgiving, it is to the family’s emotional system that we return.
As Thanksgiving approaches, how do you re-imagine your family to be? Who are the people with whom you have a shared life history? Who has been there with you in the meaningful events of your life? With whom have you shared family traditions and with whom have you created new rituals, ones that you want to continue? Who are the people who will care for each other through life-cycle journeys, pandemic threats, and other societal threats and uncertainties? As we stand in the crossroads, this in-between space can provide for time to re-think, re-imagine, remember and “re-member” important persons back to the (virtual) Thanksgiving table.