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Finding Calm in the Midst of Family

Today’s blog speaks to the upcoming holidays and a bit of perspective for finding calm in the midst of family (or at least a bit more than years past).

This waterfall of thoughts around family started over a week ago when I saw Michael Caine’s latest movie, Last Love. Without giving away the plot, just know it is about family and that heartbreaking stubbornness we humans carry around events and people dear to us.

From my own explorations and experiences, including what I’ve been honored to witness in my coaching practice, a good part of this stubborn behavior comes from how our brains create language and thus, our individual worldview.

In the book Metaphors We Live By, linguist George Lakoff coined the term “metaphorical concept” to explain a piece of this early language formation. “Metaphors are learned when two experiences occur at once.” When a child is hugged by a parent, neurons fire off in the brain because the child is experiencing something. Called “neuronal activation, this activity occurs simultaneously in two separate areas of the brain: areas devoted to emotion and areas devoted to warmth…creating the conceptual metaphor Affection is Warmth.”

Sadly, not everyone has this experience as children. These emotional/sensory combinations run the gamut from euphoric to horrific. And they become (necessarily though stubbornly) fixed in our brains. These bundles of connections can be activated by your father’s tone of voice, Aunt Lu’s retelling of an embarrassing family story, or the words of a song heard on the way to the family gathering.

Remember there are many different worldviews sitting around your holiday dinner table. Remember there are over 7 billion individual worldviews walking around on Mother Earth.

When I came across this information years ago, I began the slow and constant journey of imagining another’s worldview even as I experienced my own, and learning that however stubbornly fixed, my metaphorical view of things can be changed. It’s not easy—in fact sometimes it feels damn near impossible. It is however, what I consider to be some of the most valuable work we can do.

Some neural connection will most likely light up like a burst of fireworks somewhere between the appetizer course and dessert at one of the many gatherings most of us will attend between now and January. This is the season to be thankful and jolly. There may be times you feel neither among all those jostling viewpoints wanting to be heard. Take heart. As Thomas Moore sagely suggests, ““Slight shifts in imagination have more impact on living than major efforts at change.”

Know that finding calm doesn’t mean being passive. It means speaking and acting and being present from a place of clarity (thus knowing how your brain contributes to your view of things and how entrenched that view can be), and having compassion for others and yourself (wow, it’s a lot of work to separate the past from the present). With clarity and compassion walking alongside, you can make a beneficial choice—discerning and sensing what “slight shift of imagination” will add connection and light to a situation (often it’s the small gestures: an acknowledgment, or offer to help).

Sometimes with hectic holiday schedules and the accompanying stresses, understanding you will be disappointing someone close to you is a choice—one that comes from being kind to yourself. It’s the kindness of not pushing yourself beyond what you are truly capable of in the moment. It is rarely, if ever possible to love and accommodate everyone every minute of every day; we can however practice an “attitude of goodwill,” what Thanissaro Bhikkhu describes as “wishing the other person well, but realizing that true happiness is something that each of us ultimately will have to find for him or herself, and sometimes most easily when we go our separate ways.”

While sitting between your new sister-in-law and your cousin and across from your mother, your brother’s two-year old stuffing your shoe with crackers under the table, wish them all goodwill. Remember the truly funny things that have happened in your years together—the stories just might save you from indigestion. Be grateful that family exists; therefore you exist. Otherwise your unique worldview would not grace the table. And that would be a terrible missing.

If goodwill were a dessert, what would it taste like?



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