You’ve planned a maple glazed turkey, bourbon gravy, and a green bean casserole from Williams-Sonoma. The Pinterest-perfect table setting is set with place cards inserted in little gold dusted pinecones. An Instagram-worthy cheese assortment on a slate board awaits your guests. Then your oldest child gets the stomach flu.
Relatives are flying in from all over the United States to stay with you. It will be tight but cozy. You bought extra bedding, foam pads for the floor, wrote little notes with the Wifi password and created hospitality baskets with fall-scented soap. Then your dishwasher breaks.
You will roast a turkey, mash some potatoes, and buy an assortment of pies from the local bakery. The television is set for football, and a pick-up basketball game awaits its players. Then before the day even starts grandma falls and breaks her hip. Now you are in the hospital.
The family is out-of-town so you and your boyfriend planned a quiet Thanksgiving at home. You were stressed after working a few extra hours that morning, and during the meal prep, you picked a fight. The night goes forward in silence.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
How many different ways can our best-laid plans go awry? How many catastrophes can we plan for to still have the perfect holiday? In a society where we have air-conditioning, insurance, minimum wage guarantees, it seems we can take control of everything…until we can’t.
One person is an electric shock to the unexpected change. Add enough shocks and this person explodes, snaps at everyone, and throws a sunken pie in the garbage. The other sulks, withdraws and seems to ignore what is happening. Another goes through the motions, doing what one must to accommodate the sick child, broken dishwasher, ill grandmother, then quietly curses God or the stars under which she was born. How can we handle it all with a little grace, and not just survive the unexpected of the holidays, but rather, find a way to thrive?
It starts with our way of thinking.
Expect the unexpected. Shaping our expectations can go a long way in shaping our reactions. When I have determined I will make this event perfect, every offset piece of silverware is the universe seeking to thwart my plans. It is time to shape a new vision, one you will not find on Pinterest, except when you search “holiday fails.”
What does your vision include? Watching a movie with chairs positioned on the hardwood, and every child has a bowl in case they need to vomit? With a game to see how full you can get the dishes in the sink before the perfectionist in the room pulls out her hair? On a hunt for the perfect cup of coffee at the hospital while you get silly and sing old-fashioned Christmas carols? Or perhaps knowing, when you have had a fight, the pain we encounter makes the joy of the holiday all the sweeter?
Maintain awareness of your mood and mindset. Mindfulness is learning to sit back and observe the events, along with reactions that unfold, in a nonjudgmental way. Experts rightly see this as an answer to many of our modern day ills. We are so often caught up in our expectations and our emotionally righteous position we fail to see the fallout of our reactions. It is a skill to be able to observe, “I’m really angry right now.” Or when that little voice in your head says, “it’s ruined,” to know this is a disappointment. Anger and disappointment can be managed. They may take us by storm, but we need not be swept off the boat. Even when we are, there are ways to get back on.
Act accordingly, even when it is hard. Angry? Ask yourself why. Is it a mood, leftover from a hormonal flux or a bad encounter with the boss yesterday? Did your partner say something genuinely hurtful? Does your mother-in-law criticize your every move?
For the first, choosing to let it go and focusing on the moment helps. Maybe in order to let it go, you need to talk about what happened.
For the partner, “When you said x, it really hurt. It makes me feel like you don’t appreciate me.” Take a step back, in another room, and try to get to the heart of what hurt. Ask concretely for a way to make it better, “Could you just say thank you, instead?”
Holidays bring us encounters with so many sorts of people. Those we are closest to we can communicate with. For some, we must learn to stand our ground. “This is how we have decided to raise our children. It is important to us that we maintain this practice. I am sorry if this inconveniences you.”
And there are those times when the best choice is to let it go, because this person may be unaware and unable to change due to age, illness, etc., and the days are best spent without confrontation. In these cases, it can sometimes help to go with the opposite of your instinct. Instead of lashing out, serve the person pie. Kill them with kindness. It may not change this person’s comments or looks or criticisms, but it puts you back on top, in control of your reactions.
Whether the unexpected is minor and likely to be forgotten, or tragic, with these three steps, (1) expecting the unexpected, (2) maintaining awareness of your mood and mindset, and (3) acting accordingly for the good, we can move beyond the chaos of the holidays into what truly matters: togetherness, love and relationships. Happy Holidays.