This Christmas, a lot of us are struggling. You may be grieving or lonely or overwhelmed. You may have too many people to buy for or not enough, your hands full or far too empty. But there’s one thing that unites us all: the aggravation and drama of spending time with family.
Okay, maybe there are some who honestly never have any trouble at all with their friends and relatives and relatives’ friends. But most of us who have anyone to spend Christmas with are going to find our last nerve fraying sooner rather than later. Whether it’s your uncle’s morose muttering about whatever he’s currently lamenting, your spouse’s inability to pass plates clockwise, or your Grandmother’s incessant comments about what a good woman priest you’d make,1 there’s probably some button of yours that’s going to be pushed again and again and again this weekend.
Don’t add it to the list.
The reason these things infuriate us is that we view them as part of a pattern, as the defining characteristic of this person, as yet another instance of selfishness or sullenness or unreasonable anger. And they may be, but it doesn’t help us to love well when every transgression gets added to a heap of previous transgressions. “This is just like that time in 1986 when he didn’t let me borrow his trike. How typical.”
But love never says “how typical.”
Think about it. People crazy in love, even those who aren’t blind to their partners’ faults, don’t define the beloved by her flaws. That’s where the breakdown of love begins. “It’s so like her,” we mutter when she’s late again, and begin to view her tardiness as a deliberate offense. Should she be late? Probably not. But when we choose to see people as a catalog of faults we cease to be lovers.
I read this years ago in an anthology of C.S. Lewis’ favorite authors. The way to love difficult people is to refuse to see their annoying or hurtful or offensive behaviors as typical of them. Now, obviously if a relationship is abusive we need to leave or somehow distance ourselves. And in some relationships we’re able and even obligated to help the other to see his hurtful behavior and try to change. But often the flaw is too ingrained, the relationship too tenuous, or the issue more a matter of your sensitivity than anything else. Your cousin’s eye rolling, for example, or your grandfather’s sudden fits of temper. When we’re not being called to speak out in fraternal correction, it’s easy just to build a list of grievances with no Festivus celebration at which to air them. But that’s not love and it’s not Christian.
So instead, do this: when your sister-in-law doesn’t say thank you–again–and you find yourself internally seething–“How typical!”–stop. Choose to think instead, “Huh,” as though this were entirely unlike her. Instead of remembering every single other time ever and cementing your image of your sister-in-law as ingrate, imagine this was the first time she’d ever acted this way. Would it bother you then? Certainly not as much.
The Year of Mercy is over, but this is still a Church of mercy seeking to build a culture of mercy. When it comes to family, we need that mercy all the more. This Christmas we celebrate the mercy of God who refuses to define us by our sin. Let’s extend that same mercy by throwing out our decades-old heap of baggage and seeing people instead as the sum of their good qualities, “the sum of the Father’s love for us,” as JPII said. When you find yourself tempted to mutter, “How typical,” remind yourself: love never says “how typical.” Love chooses to see what is beautiful and look past the flaws. This Christmas, let’s choose love.
- Just me? [↩]