Be Scrooge and Tiny Tim


“Alms for Scrooge!”

I recently heard a man squelch this at someone asking for change on a New York City street. I cringed, at once identifying with the self-named “Scrooge” and also repelled by him. It struck me how often we are selfish (and even cruel) when our intention is simply to be self-preserving, spewing unnecessary venom when all we really need to say is “not today.”

Brusk as we may be with strangers, we are even more so with our families during “the most wonderful time of the year,” adding fuel to the fierce flames of the family-drama-laden “hellidays.”

I’ve already advised you to trim your “Christmas three” and to know your “safe-goat” so as to glide through your holiday-family-inferno unscathed. Now, if you can be self-preserving without being selfish, you may actually enjoy yourself on top of all this — and even have some generosity to spare.

In order to self-preserve, we must first understand this “self” of ours and how the holidays affect it.

The “holidays” — American, secular Christmas in particular — come with a great deal of expectation and disappointment. As children, we are promised an event during which we’ll receive custom-made presents, treats, and magic. In short, we are promised our fantasies. We anticipate receiving everything our parents can’t give us in reality on that one special day. As adults, we learn to temper, bury or extinguish these fantasies — like psychoanalyst Adam Phillips says, we become “ingenious at resisting the lead of our desire” — but when we reassemble with our families at the end of the year, as many regularly and crudely do, we regress. We look to each other to fulfill those old promises, to make those custom fantasies come true, and of course, it never works.

Enter the highly-subjective, often inscrutable, irritatingly-inevitable disappointments, e.g. “This is our year to host.”

“You didn’t go shopping yet?”

“Is he gonna be in the kitchen all night?”

“Is she crying again?”

“Of course we’re going to the movies. We always go to the movies. Why wouldn’t we go to the movies?”

“Um… we don’t allow them to watch Charlie Brown.”

“Thanks, but he already HAS the red truck.”

“You’re leaving already?”

“Sorry, but I’m allergic to cats and gluten and that figgy pudding you make… and I tell you this every year.”

“Can’t you get OVER yourself for one damn day?”

We become drained by the black hole of “their” uniquely-unfulfilled promises and find ourselves too deprived of our own wish-fulfillment to offer even the tiniest of Tiny Tim “blessings.”

This is why some completely avoid family festivities altogether (like Luke Skywalker escape-podding from The Death Star), and in some cases that may be the best option. However, I suggest (whenever possible) that it’s better to be with family on this occasion than not to be. I can tell you with absolute certainty that when we defer family conflict it kindles in our guts, awaiting the backdraft it will eventually become when triggered by a family member — or possibly even a stranger asking for change on the street.

“But,” you might ask, “if our families will reliably burden and disappoint us, how can we tolerate a holiday with them, let alone have a good time?”

Well, the bad news is that not a one of them is going to check off our Christmas list… but that’s also the good news. To a large extent, adulthood comes at the price of childlike fantasy and expectation, but this opens the door to something arguably more liberating: the ability to treat ourselves.

If your dad won’t cook your favorite roast goose, make it for your friends the week before. If your mom always forgets which spa service to put on the gift certificate, pamper yourself to a full-day package. If your brother never has a gift for you, buy yourself the video game you always wanted as a kid but never got. Take a weekend in Puerto Rico, buy some canvases and paints, take the walk or the scenic drive you always postpone, make the crafty ornaments you’ve been thinking of, meditate in the park, take that tennis lesson, or buy that trumpet. There’s absolutely no reason not to indulge yourself with comfort and joy, so long as it’s reasonably within your means and not harmful to you or anyone else (you might reconsider the trumpet if you live in a railroad apartment with paper thin walls).

This of course removes a lot of the pressure to make any dreams come true at the big family event. Think of time spent with the fam as a brief military mission, wherein you’ll be parachuted down to drop off baubles, taste your aunt’s new quiche, ask your sister about her job in person, earn a new nickname from your nephew, offer that Tiny Tim toast, and get helicoptered out before everything goes south. You’ll have a shared experience to fall back on the next time you speak to one of them (instead of awkward silence), and though none of them will know about your wish list, that’s just fine, since you’ll be the one answering it.

Charles Dickens’ infamous character Ebenezer Scrooge actually had it right, to a certain extent: By making and saving money, he understood that one needs to take care of oneself before it’s even possible to take care of anyone else. His problem, of course, was that he didn’t take the next step of investing in his own joy, nourishing his body or his soul (self-preservation) and therefore couldn’t be bothered to take care of anyone else (selfishness). Fortunately, we know better.

Take care of yourself first; be naughty (have a Bravo marathon with your favorite mac and cheese), or nice (adopt an orphaned cat, dog or chinchilla) but spoil yourself like no one else can. You’ll then have the motivation to play a round of Pictionary with your family and the willingness to offer an easy smile, a blessing, or even some change to a stranger in need.

Know Your Safe-Goat

The Scandinavian Yule Goat symbolizes the relationship between sacrifice and celebration during the holidays. It refers to the Nordic God Thor’s slaughtering of goats for an end-of-year feast (he would resurrect them the next day). We may need to sacrifice a goat of our own to get through the family drama-fueled “hellidays” — a “safe-goat.”

What is that?

As opposed to a family scapegoat — an immediate family member at whom we direct unprocessed anxiety or anger — a “safe-goat” is a person far enough outside our immediate family system at whom we can direct unprocessed anxiety or anger without inflaming conflicts between present members.

Last week I advised you to “trim your Christmas three,” i.e., to avoid triangulating or scapegoating a third party during any family contact leading up to the holidays, in order to coast through to New Year’s Day family drama-free. But, as my siblings have since reminded me, finding yourself short on material with your family can cause anxiety, making you vulnerable to the flames of gossip. At these times, you may need to deploy a “safe-goat.”

Now, this is not a model for long-term healthy relationships; in general, bonding with one person by directing negative energy at another is toxic and prevents us from individual and relational growth. But right now we’re just talking about getting by. You might think of it as symptom management, cough syrup for your strep throat as opposed to an antibiotic. That being said, before using the “safe-goat” solution, you’ll want to read and adhere to the warning label: At no time should you disparage the “safe-goat” in a way that fosters prejudice against a type or group of people, as this will breed unnecessary ill will at a time of peace and hope. The point is to have at your fingertips someone familiar to the group over whom you can share a quick and easy gasp, growl or guffaw, and this should only be used as a last resort.

How do you choose your “safe-goat”?

Remember, you’re trying to avoid clear and present conflict, so obviously you’ll want to pick someone you won’t see over the holidays and who is separate enough from your immediate family that talking about them won’t cause tension between any two of you. An aunt or uncle could work, so long as they’re not top-billing stars in your family drama. Special guest star status should be the limit (as in, you see them once every three years at most). Twice or thrice removed relatives are good options. Shared (or formerly shared) neighbors, high-school teachers and DMV workers are even better.

An ideal “safe-goat” will have a personality quirk that affects everyone the same way, e.g., the absent uncle who suddenly appears when he needs money, the aunt whose monologue skills rival Fiona Shaw’s (only aggressively draining as opposed to entertaining), the “hyper-healthy” cousin who’s consistently “not surprised” when one of you gets sick, your mother’s neighbor who calls every five minutes to find out what she’s doing, the former high school art teacher who now posts homemade music videos about the apocalypse on YouTube, the DMV worker with the fixed smirk who somehow manages to trigger a full-blown public tantrum in each of you.

The roasting of the “safe-goat” will ideally fill dead air — much like the celebrity roasting panel on Chelsea Lately — but only for a few minutes, in order to keep you comfortably present with your family. You’ll want to be mindful of the potential for your gossip to go nuclear (as in family), in which case you should redirect back to a “safe-goat.” You should also keep your ears peeled for an opportunity to switch topics altogether — to mutually-interesting current events, movies, books, etc. — if and when possible.

Just as Thor resurrected his sacrificed goats the day after his feast, so should you mentally redeem your “safe-goat” after your event has passed and their purpose has been served. Make sure to discard any residual negative thoughts you generated about them the day before. As the holidays come to a close, and the new year begins, you can then turn to cultivating your individual family relationships in the long-term without any third party involvement — save, perhaps the help of a psychotherapist or spiritual guide.

We should all put in the time to learn how to relate to one another without triangulating, but the “hellidays” can be desperate times, and it can only help to go in armed with a “safe-goat.”

Trim Your Christmas Three

As much as we want (or feel obligated) to visit our “folks” at the holidays, many of us are weighed down with family drama. Shackled by the fear of unresolved conflicts getting triggered, old wounds being torn open, and multiple miscommunications devolving into emotional chaos, we often enter the season with more dread than hope.

Fortunately, I have a tool to guide you through your holiday inferno, inspired by the great family therapist Murray Bowen.

Just as you might trim your waistline before summer, so too should you trim your family drama before the holidays. For swimsuit dieters, there are quick, easy and even healthy ways to achieve this trimming. For those of us carrying around a few extra pounds of family drama, there’s also a surefire way to trim down — before getting caught in what I call the “Helliday” flames.

The technique I’m about to share with you is simple as one, two and… well, forget about three. That’s it actually. That’s the whole technique. Drop the number three from all your family interactions in the days leading up to your family gathering. In other words, “three’s a crowd,” so don’t talk to anyone in your family about any other member of your family. At all. Under no circumstances. Keep all contact one on one.

Just like abstaining from carbs will trim your waist in two weeks, trimming three from your family relationships will decrease your load of “dirty laundry” in the same amount of time. Keep it up between now and New Year’s Day, and you’ll coast through the holidays like Santa on a sleigh — minus the heavy load.

I realize that this is easier blogged than done, but I promise you will see results if you are disciplined.

If a relative calls to complain about a prehistoric argument with another relative, change the subject. Keep all dialogue positive, and only on the two of you; do not, under any circumstances, discuss anyone else in the family. This may result in your triangulating relative (TR) to feel rejected. Kindly remind TR that you are very interested in them and their life, but that you simply do not wish to discuss the relative they have beef with; instead, you’d rather hear what’s up with them. Your conversations may become much shorter than ever before, and that’s just fine. As long as the conversations are positive and dyadic (only focused on you and that other person) you’re good.

After trying this (for at least a week), you can help yourself even more by proactively contacting relatives you’ll see at an upcoming event, particularly the ones you’re only used to connecting with through someone else. Again, these may be short exchanges, but at least you’ll have made direct contact, and by abstaining from family gossip, you’ll avoid any preemptive fanning of “Helliday” flames. By doing this, you may also even create an unexpected firewall for yourself, if and when family drama erupts.

By the time you arrive at your event, you will already have had brief, positive encounters with each person present. Everyone will know that you’re not the person to confide in regarding their smoldering feelings about others present, and since you haven’t talked about anyone behind their backs, you can enjoy the levity of having nothing to hide.

Leave the number three to 1) the three blessings while lighting your menorah (for Hanukkah), 2) lighting the three candles of hope and the three candles of struggle (for Kwanzaa), or 3) for setting up the three wise men in your nativity (for Christmas). But trim the number three from your family tree.