The spinster aunt, the divorced uncle whose children seem never to visit him, the cousin who was always a “little off,” the widow whose family members live several states away, the 20-something brother who is wrapped up in a lifestyle that eschews family contact, the 30-something sister whose rising career leaves no time to visit home… And the list goes on. Most of us can identify at least one or two of these scenarios in our own families, and with the holidays here, it may be an ideal time to make efforts at breaking through the disconnection and distance in some of these family relationships.
The incessant consumerism which has engulfed society causes too many of our friends and family to lose the “reason for the season.” Sadly, this vacuum is often filled with increased stress , emotional distress and substance abuse. Some of these stresses are rather superficial and self-induced—worries about finding the perfect gift or which parties to attend, etc. Other stresses, however, are deeper and occur more naturally, as we are inherently drawn during the holidays to reflect on those who are missing from our lives—either through death, distance, or some emotional estrangement. It is these latter stresses which require a more profound response to address adequately because they touch a foundational aspect of the human condition: the need to affiliate with others, to be seen, to be known, and to be loved.
To reach those missing from our lives, we must be willing to reach out. And reaching out is often hard. Forgiveness, even unspoken, unilateral forgiveness—the kind which is unknown to the forgiven—is often the key. It can be powerfully healing for a relationship.
The need for companionship, for personal closeness, is a universal truth, but it can be a particularly poignant truth for those who are suffering, whether that suffering be physical, emotional, financial, from the loss of a special relationship, or simply a loss of direction in life. Of course, it does little good to force oneself on others who are not interested or open to contact, but in my experience working with clients in the counseling room, it is far more often the case that people hesitate to reach out rather than find themselves, in retrospect, having pushed too hard. Often, there is someone out there who is hoping, aching for someone to reach out to them. Understandably, it is difficult to risk the potential rejection or perhaps even harsh words one might hear should he or she go against the inertia, the politically-correct silence, under the guise of wanting not to intrude. Yet, the potential long-term benefits of taking such a risk far outweigh the temporary pain or discomfort that might come from a feared rebuff.
The importance of taking the steps needed to ensure that No Family Member is Left Alone can be understood at multiple levels. First and foremost, is the good of that person. Loneliness is difficult; chronic loneliness can lead to feelings of despair and experiences of depression. Because of the mythical joy of the holiday season and the expectation that all be of good cheer during this “most wonderful time of the year” (which for people of Christian faith, it indeed is), the impact of loneliness is exacerbated when comparisons are made. Second, we should consider that efforts to increase a sense of community, even if only in our own family or small circle of friends, have benefits for the common good. Although more difficult to prove, it would seem that goodwill fostered in any relationship will be potentially passed along to others, and cascading “random acts of kindness” could ensue. Third, the person who reaches out will experience his or her own benefits. Actions which involve risk and sacrifice done for an objective good are understood to be in accord with our human nature, and, as such, naturally enhance our personal sense of meaning and worth.
On a more practical level, the Mayo clinic staff, in their tips for coping with holiday stress, emphasize this need for recognizing and facilitating connections with others. They encourage reaching out and seeking community with others through volunteering or reconnecting with existing social groups, setting aside differences with family or friends, and acknowledging the pain of lost relationships if someone significant has recently died or moved beyond one’s reach. Again, the common theme here is how critical are personal relationships to healthy functioning.
So in this time of year when many are focused on the hustle and bustle of the holidays, rather than pondering the holy days from which they have been taken, consider spending increased time with family and friends, and consider also seeking out those who might be “the least of your brothers,” those who come to mind not so quickly, not so easily or without welcome and warm feelings. It is especially they who need a touch, a contact, a reminder of their dignity, of their worth, and that they, too, are deserving of love.