I was part of a blended family. There were animals (lots of them), step-children and step-parents, relatives-in-law, Christians, Jews, Romanians, Israelis, Puerto Ricans, children and grandparents, and a strangely disappearing "family uncle" named Silviu (no one understood how he was related to us, but we took him in anyway; he usually slept on the couch). And I can tell you that it got a little crazy sometimes. But we recognized one thing: We were a family, and that was quite enough to see beyond our different backgrounds and beliefs.
My father loved to throw big family dinners on Mondays. There were my stepsisters, gossiping about mutual friends and chiding their children for eating with their hands. Beside them sat their tall, dark, and handsome Latino husbands, clucking away in their native tongue. My father was perched at the head of the table like a king on a throne, his thick black hair and thick lips characteristic among his three Romanian brothers, all of whom were present and all of whom had married women from Israel. My mother delegated the passing down of dishes and heaped more food onto everyone's plate whether they liked it or not. My lesbian aunt and her partner were found on the opposite end, faithfully holding hands and partaking in the familial tomfoolery. Beneath the table lurked several cats and dogs, awaiting to surface their snouts at the first sight of a hand holding scraps of meat. And of course there was Silviu, the mysterious family uncle, giggling at everyone's jokes, though some were in Spanish or Hebrew, which he did not understand.
To a passerby who peered through the window, we might have looked like a conglomeration of people just sitting at a table. But our home held a cluster of kind smiles, laughter bursting at inside jokes, hearty pats on the back, and fond memories recounted together. A blending of different beings all longing for the same thing: to love and be loved. We shared not just food and a communal table -- we shared love lit by the light of our souls. Such were my family dinners, my Monday nights, my most sorely missed memory.
I hear many people complain about their relatives: "My sister's a...," "My aunt did this," "I can't stand my dad." And although I've expressed similar frustrations growing up, I shake my head in envy at their words. How I wish to be close to my stepsisters again, see my aunt who now lives in Europe, or hug my dad once more. I even miss Silviu, who finally found a new home (though we do not know where). I've learned that family feuds are perfectly normal, but what is not normal are the permanent rifts we allow to form from senseless arguments and opposing viewpoints. Sooner or later life makes us all regret our pride and stubborn nature.
Nearly five years have passed since my father left this world and our family dinners. We have tried to gather around the table as before but the food, however pungent, was tasteless without his presence. In his honor, I share my six keys to giving and receiving the most of your family:
Put your pride aside. Pride is the No. 1 factor causing familial grief. That's because our ego, the generator of pride, makes us grip onto the notion that we and only we can be right. One person's hubris can disrupt an entire family. It can simply devastate kinship because it disassociates individuals from the whole, diminishing the sense of unity. If someone in your household has hurt you, disengage your pride and tap into wisdom: Be smart enough to forgive and forge ahead.
Give them time. Change requires time. A person may need to change, but they may take a while to acknowledge it and perform the work involved. Change is a process, not a result. The best thing you can do for someone is to gently push them towards the changes they need to make. Take your time and offer unconditional support. Help someone change by showing them what change looks like; change yourself to reflect the behaviors they need to modify. Being above the wrong behaviors of others sets you up as an example. Your patience may be tested as the people in your family undergo change, but this allows you to broaden your own tolerant threshold, making you a better, more enlightened person. What's important is that you do see progress in time.
Wear their shoes. An famous saying goes, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about." It's easy to pinpoint the flaws of others -- they may be sensitive, hypocritical, overly irritable -- and harder to dig down to the roots of their weaknesses. Your family wants what's best for you, but their personal issues won't let them show that or make them go about it in inappropriate ways. When you understand this, you learn not to take their words and actions that may be out of line too personally. You begin to see the roots of their weaknesses surface. And this can only be done if you walk in their proverbial shoes.
Appreciate the generations. I openly admit that my mother is my best friend. I would much rather spend time with her than my friends because she helps me expand my awareness. But to many young people, connecting with older generations is seen as a chore and not a joy. There is so much we can learn about improving our lives from those who have already gone through life. Why ignore their sage-like wisdom? Honor those who have passed through the challenges and lessons that await us all. To borrow a bit of their knowledge can help you transcend your own trials more easily.
Cut out external influence. Often external influences may be the cause of drama within your clan. You may have problems with your mother because of your sister or argue with your husband because of your mother-in-law. Even friends and co-workers play a big role in your family dynamic, because the energies around you inadvertently seep into all of your relationships. The best thing you can do is separate your influences and keep toxic energies at arm's length. Stand up firmly but politely against those negatively impacting your relationships. Show them love and compassion but do not tolerate their unnecessary impressions on other aspects of your life.
Practice bonding rituals. People wince at the idea of "family bonding" because they feel forced to spend time with distant, somewhat annoying family members. Simplify your idea of bonding; it's not a science. Change your mentality from "I need to" to "I want to." Family bonding can happen at any time, whether it's gathering around to watch a movie or walking the dog down the street. Even disagreements hold their place in terms of bonding because you share emotions. And the process of reconciling, healing, and learning after an argument can leave you closer than before. Be attentive to the needs of your loved ones and incorporate activities they enjoy. There's something to take away from everyone, whether you get along with them all the time or not.
It is your family whom you will remember throughout your life. And be they good or bad or in-between, your family members have crossed your path for a greater purpose. Cherish them, and let their presence divinely serve your life.
To your family,
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