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Perspective: Why you should talk to your family this Thanksgiving — even if you’ve fallen out

The decision to exclude our family and friends from holiday celebrations is not inconsequential

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Julaftonen_by_Carl_Larsson_1904_edit.jpg

Carl Larsson’s 1904 painting “Julaftonen,” which shows a family gathered around a turkey dinner.

Carl Larsson, Wikimedia Commons

Many ancient peoples had a strong norm of hospitality.

Long before automobiles and airplanes, people would often travel miles by foot and would need respite from the harsh climate and a safe place to rest. It was a culturally normative practice to accept even perceived political enemies into your home for a warm meal and even to sleep.

In fact, in Homer’s “Iliad,” two soldiers on opposing sides, Diomedes and Glaucus, meet on the battlefield and trade armor instead of fighting because they realized their progenitors had done so.

Now with modern conveniences, such notions of hospitality seem less immediately necessary. If we turn a family member or friend away from our Thanksgiving table due to disagreement or discomfort, it might feel like an inconsequential decision. After all, the past decade has left us more divided than ever and sometimes overcoming this seems insurmountable.

But the decision to exclude our family and friends from holiday celebrations is not inconsequential; it will likely lead to lasting regret. According to The New York Times, at least 27% of Americans are estranged from a family member and at least 40% have experienced estrangement at some point.

But we aren’t meant to drive each other apart; we are meant to come together. The holiday season gives us a unique time to put each other above artificial divides, even though those divides can sometimes feel more important than our relationships.

Even — and perhaps especially — if it’s hard, you should still talk to your family this Thanksgiving.

There are some exceptional situations like abuse that make this impossible and imprudent. But when rifts occur because of our collective tendency to favor insularity over diversity, it’s wise to reconsider our stance.

While families often share a variety of different common traits, we can diverge from family members in religion, politics, ideology, geography, culture and a variety of other distinctions that we may then elevate as a reason to exclude family members from our table. It’s easier to talk to people with whom we already agree instead of cultivating friendships that truly cross divides and build bridges.

But Daniel Pink, who researches regret, has found that moral regrets like these “ache the most and last the longest.”

Just recently, I was looking outside of the window at the Salt Lake City skyline where the buildings glimmered like stars against the night sky. In this moment of quiet and calm, a thought interrupted me — I would never have Thanksgiving dinner again with a beloved and now deceased family member of mine.

I found myself desperately wishing for one more family dinner while feeling my heart break because I knew that wouldn’t happen.

Death is tragically revelatory. I don’t believe any of us watch our loved ones die and wish we spent more time arguing with them. I think, instead, we wish that we spent more time enjoying each other’s company and wish we knew sooner rather than later that what we really cared about was each other, not artificial divides.

I don’t think I’ll ever regret skipping the argument on the best tax policy (and my interest in tax policy is probably higher than most), but I know I’ll have regret if I don’t ask my family members and friends how they are, hear about their lives and cherish the too-short time we spend together.

This Thanksgiving might be a time to take relationships more seriously than we have before, and that might mean pausing conversations around politics for one meal. A poll last year found that most Americans don’t want to talk about politics while they eat their turkey and stuffing. Politics should have a healthy sense of urgency around it — there are many real and serious problems that we need to fix. However, we also need to fix another serious problem — our lack of connectedness to each other.

Maybe we’ve realized that we’ve shut out loved ones too quickly or that we need to forgive a loved one in our life before our opportunity to express that forgiveness is gone. Our instincts and introspection will help inform us where we’ve fallen short in our close relationships and how we can mend them before it’s too late.

It might be hard to pick up the phone and call someone with whom we disagree with strongly, or have become estranged from for other reasons. While the easier path is to ignore our urge to reconcile and make a bigger table, the more rewarding path is to do exactly that.