The sparkle. The cheer. The twinkling lights in an otherwise dark and cold season. The magic, really.
There is so much magic to be had in gathering with family, sharing a meal, reconnecting with long-lost cousins. Playing board games and reliving old memories. Hearing the hopes and dreams of younger generations just starting to embark on their journeys. In our minds, the holidays are the most joyful season of all … until they aren’t …
This may be an unpopular opinion, but my thesis is this: somewhere along the way we’ve ruined holidays, and for that matter, the entire holiday season. The truth is, I’m probably just getting older and instead of looking forward to holidays with the bright-eyed wonder of a child, now I’m the one planning and cooking and cleaning and making sure the event runs smoothly, only to put it all away and start planning for the next holiday. But also, life has given me the experience to know that not everyone is excited to gather with family and loved ones while struggling with the burdens of their own life’s struggles.
Mental health challenges are hiding in plain sight
In fact, for friends and family struggling with anxiety or depression or any multitude of other mental health challenges, the holidays can be plagued by doubt and fear and disfunction. I just learned that a staggering 71% of people have suffered from a mental health disorder, and 83% have used Mental Health Services. So, when we put that in perspective and realize that 4 out of 5 people at a holiday gathering are struggling with something you cannot see and may not know about, the holidays take on a new perspective.
What about the people who chose not to attend the function? Why are they missing? How are they hurting? Before you’re quick to pass judgement, pause instead to remember that the majority of people diagnosed with a mental disorder choose to suffer in silence, and there are even more who have not been officially diagnosed, but are suffering nonetheless.
Genuine connection is the greatest gift of all
So, while we’re busy planning menus and selecting décor, finding gifts, and unpacking place settings, let us pause to remember to include everyone. Keeping in mind that lack of connection often leads to loneliness, and in turn depression, consider how simple a kind word or knowing smile can change a person’s day. How easy it is to be kind to a cashier or lend a helping hand to a person in need. While we’re stringing lights on our roofs, or lighting candles in the window, let us consider how we could be a light in the life of a co-worker, a colleague, a client, a partner, a friend, a family member, even a stranger. How could you really impact the life of another person?
Maybe if we chose to slow down during the holidays rather than getting wrapped up in the chaos of over-scheduled events and social commitments, we could reflect on the people we are spending our time with ‒ and who is missing. Who is missing from your table? From your living room? From your conference room? Look around and note ‒ someone is missing.
We talk about this a lot in the corporate world ‒ who’s missing from the table? Who are the decision makers? Where are the women? The people of color? The gender diverse? Where are the people whose opinions matter and whose contributions lead to greater solutions? Let’s not compartmentalize Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion to become workplace jargon. Let’s really live it. Who is missing from your dinner table? Who is at dinner but isn’t being heard? Who is talking over everyone? Who is physically present but not emotionally engaged? Who cannot wait to leave? Engage those people. Interact with them. Connect with them. People crave connection. And the holidays present the perfect opportunity to transform obligatory gatherings into genuine connections.
Connection isn’t always easy ‒ but it is worth it
Look, the introvert in me is the first to admit I’d be the first to leave a social gathering if possible. Fortunately for me, my husband’s an extrovert, so we typically end up hosting the parties, which makes them super awkward to leave (not for lack of effort). But my point is … it’s not easy to connect with someone who doesn’t want to connect. And forcing small talk isn’t valuable for anyone. But being there, welcoming everyone, making everyone feel comfortable ‒ that is a priceless gift you can give to anyone.
In her book, Sorry I’m late, I didn’t want to come, Jessica Pan* shares that “everyone is actually willing to talk but thinks everyone else is unwilling.” She goes on to talk about how after surveying people on the London Underground, where most people ride in silence, passengers estimated that 42-43% of strangers might be willing to talk if you talked to them first … only to find out that when actually surveyed, nearly 100% of respondents said they would invite conversation with someone on the train. And yet, we’ve all been riding in silence for decades because we’re afraid to strike up conversation. She goes on to share a story about riding on a bus through Ethiopia and watching the children and their mothers stare at the bus with blank expressions as it passed by, but then she realized she was staring at them with a blank expression, so when she decided to smile and wave, every single person she passed smiled and waved back.
Pan goes on to practice a version of “speed dating” but for making friends, where the goal is to make a genuine connection with someone in a very short amount of time, which requires you to cut through the small talk about the weather and movies you’ve seen recently and get to the “deep self” quickly ‒ How do you spend your days? What fears have you conquered and overcome? What is your greatest joy? What is your greatest failure? These questions sound absurd for polite conversation, but they really work for breaking down barriers and opening conversations that lead to genuine connections, and potentially strengthened relationships with the people you choose to spend your holidays with.
So, avoid a politically charged conversation with your weird uncle, and ask him a question about his childhood hopes and dreams instead. Trust me when I tell you … nobody will care if the gravy was lumpy if they leave feeling seen and heard with a renewed sense of connection for having been included.
*Pan, Jessica; Sorry I’m late, I didn’t want to come; 2019; pp 19-20