Tis the season for families to gather for the holidays. Whenever you ask people here in the Cook Islands what they value most, their first answer is often “Family.” Honestly speaking, family is the source of the good, the bad, and even the ugly in our lives. Family has the power to lift us up, give us a sense of identity and safety, or devalue us and have us wondering all our lives, “Am I enough? Am I worthy?” Whenever there is estrangement in a family, no longer speaking to one another, frozen in a state of blame or guilt, there is profound grief that can mar even the happiest season. Although it is not always possible or even wise to reconcile our differences with a family member, whenever possible, healing should be a priority. We all have the capacity to sweeten each other’s lives with our love, trust, and generosity. What we often lack is the will. Or if we are willing, the other may refuse to take part. In my experience, when there is a rift between parent and child, it takes enormous detachment to let it go. A friend of mine shared that at one point, she had to admit that she and her son had irreconcilable differences. So, she said in prayer, “Lord you gave my son to me. I’m giving him back to You. I’m leaving him in Your hands.”
Even without major drama, family gatherings can be an experience we would choose to forget or one full of joy and good memories. Virtues are the guide to the best family times ever. First, there needs to be a commitment, a promise you make to yourself to avoid the “troubled C’s” of negativity – criticism, conflict and control — and instead practice the virtues that create family unity.
- Don’t criticize, whether a hair style, a weight gain or loss, or anything else. Instead appreciate the good you see in each man, woman and child. Find something to acknowledge and complement. Not, “Aunty, you sure look fat,” or “Have you heard of the new Hollywood diet?”, but “Aunty, how’s your health been? You sure look healthy.”
- Don’t get into conflict. Family gatherings are no place for name-calling or arguments. If there is something that needs to be sorted out, call a family consultation circle and listen to each person’s point of view. Better yet, save it for another time. Just enjoy each other!
- Don’t try to control others, but do set some clear boundaries about what you are willing to do, ground rules to keep the kids safe, and so on. If there are several cooks in the kitchen, clarify what each one’s role is and let them do it their way! That’s a very practical example of how clear boundaries can save the day. Your brother may not make the gravy in your traditional way, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is accepting the diversity that makes unity rich and real. When people try to control you, be gently assertive. “Thanks for the advice, Mom. This is my job and I’m doing it a bit differently.”
- Give your best attention. Listen to one another’s stories. When you get tired, listen some more. Ask good questions. Use the magic words, “What?” and “How?” “What has it been like for you since Uncle passed?” Don’t avoid touchy subjects. Listen with compassion and detachment. We all need to feel heard. When the story ends, give a Virtues Acknowledgment, “You’ve loved him so faithfully all these years.”
- Touch each other. I love watching indigenous families around a campfire or in the South Pacific, a barbecue on the beach — holding hands, playing with each other’s hair, giving lots of hugs, men and boys with their arms around each other’s shoulders. People are hungry for loving touch. Being together is an opportunity to share in this special way.
Appreciation, attention, affection and assertiveness are the essentials of a good family season. Maori families, including Cook Islanders, have a huge capacity for play, whether in a fishing tournament, time on the beach, a volley ball game, or a tug of war. Play is the real work of family time. That and of course cooking! Sharing a fabulous meal is a great way to share love, and love is what this season of unity is all about.