Lately I’ve received several letters from readers who are feeling deeply ambivalent about the upcoming holiday season. They’re planning trips to have Thanksgiving dinner at the homes of parents or siblings, and they’re feeling slightly apprehensive about showing up without a spouse or children in tow.
Some are worried about being grilled by well-meaning aunts or uncles about their love life. Others know their families won’t do this, but the pointed silence around this issue will feel equally oppressive. And then there are also the subtle indignities that singles frequently experience during the holidays.
It just makes sense to have Thanksgiving at your sister’s house, since your apartment can’t accommodate all your nieces and nephews. It just makes sense that your brother and sister-in-law sleep in the guest room, and you the basement den couch. It just makes sense for your brother-in-law to be the head chef, since you’re in his kitchen. So why don’t you chop those carrots or wipe down the silver?
The intent behind logistical arguments like these may not be personal, but it can definitely feel that way. Or they did to me when I was single. But I discovered that there was a way for me to reclaim my dignity during the holidays, and it was very simple: I shifted my attention away from myself and onto others.
Instead of focusing on my own sense of injustice or disappointment, I started asking myself a simple question: How can I make this holiday better for others? Does my uncle need his drink refreshed? Does my grandmother need help getting up the steps? Does my mom need saving from the conversation with cranky Aunt Edna? Will it help my harried cousin if I just shut up and cut carrots?
It sounds really basic, but I quickly discovered that focusing on other people’s happiness made me much less concerned with my own. I found it was nearly impossible to feel bad about myself when I was taking care of others. I wasn’t someone who was losing at the game of life. I was a very imperfect person in a very imperfect family. Today I would enjoy their company. Tomorrow, I’d head back to my tiny apartment, to my life—one that is very different from my relatives’, but that made me happy, anyway.