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Mindful : December 2016
Family conflicts are as old as Cronus consuming his offspring, Cain slaying Abel, and having to sit at the kiddie table during holiday meals. When we feel boundaries being crossed or the sting of familial insensitivity, it can give rise to hard-heartedness and an unwillingness to see each other anew. Those feelings can last decades, even lifetimes. I know this because when I was 18, my sister and I got involved with the same guy. Rob was a sexy British vagabond, and my time with him was short and edu- cational in the way my flaming teenage libido longed for. But it turned out the charms of an eager amateur had limited appeal next to the hot-blood- ed worldliness of an older, beautiful sister. They met when Rob dropped me off at home just before I got on a plane and left town for Christmas break. When I returned, Rob and my sister picked me up at the airport...to- gether. As I sat in the back seat of the car, contemplating double murder, the seeds of family strife were sown. Years later my sister was living abroad and, without investigating why, I found the infrequency of our visits a great relief. Then war broke out around her and she had to come home pronto, and she moved in with me—just before I was diagnosed with cancer. My sister lovingly insisted on accom- panying me through my entire cancer carnival. But all I could see was how much I didn’t trust her. Her care, her tenderness, were no match for my reptilian responses, secretly holding on to hazy, decades-old wounds like fresh meat. I had made up my mind We all know how to hold a grudge, butfewofusknowwhywehangonto past hurts—or how to let them go. Too Close for Comfort Illustration by Edmon De Haro as to who my sister was—selfish and self-absorbed—so I didn’t bother looking at the person in front of me. Then one day we were cabbing home from surgery and, in a moment of great vulnerability, she looked at me with such genuine love and concern that I finally acknowleged she wasn’t who I thought she was and let the murky past go. That was years ago, but as the current holiday season approaches and I find myself surrounded by people strug- gling with their relatives, I recall that moment with my sister in the taxi and the joy of being able to start fresh. Human development takes time and experience. Part of our discomfort comes from knowing our families have a front-row view to our awkward progression toward maturity. Child- hood bullies can become compas- sionate adults, ignorance can become awareness, but along the way we may harm one another. When our bodies perceive or interpret a threat (like a possible boyfriend-stealer), adrena- line kicks in, cortisol is released, and our fight-or-flight response often categorizes that threat as unsafe and forever-bad. We risk getting stuck in a trap where we impulsively act out our unexamined gut responses and, ultimately, we miss out on the wisdom that comes from seeing how things re- ally are, right now. More to the point, when families are unwilling to see each other anew, they hold each other prisoner with no chance of parole. But if we can connect with our higher functions, like curiosity, we can set one another free. As you head into the gatherings of the festive season, should you find yourself faced with old resentments and tense relationships, consider that you may be the one holding on to past hurts and keeping the pain-train going. People can (and often do) change—so give yourself permission to see it. Today, my sister is a trusted friend. I am so fortunate to really see her as she is: wonderful and insightful; someone I can laugh with, and share the unique perspectives of growing up in the same family. As I was writing this piece I de- cided to ask her, after all these years, why had she done that? I could see her reaching deeply to answer my ques- tion. “Done what?” “You know, stole Rob.” “Who?” she asked. “The British guy, the guy I was seeing a billion years ago, for a second. Remember?” Finally she seemed to recall someone. “That guy? Were you two dating?” Elaine Smookler is a registered psychotherapist with a 20-year mindfulness practice. She is senior faculty at the Centre for Mindfulness Studies. PRACTICES | on relationships 38 mindful December 2016