Lessons From Planet Earth
Many of us look forward to various winter celebrations that happen in December and January, which might include the Winter Solstice, Christmas, Hanukkah, Ramadan, or Kwanzaa. Whatever you celebrate, I imagine we all return to school having spent time with various members of our families.
When we describe family gatherings we often focus on all the wonderful moments we had together, but in every family gathering we inevitably experience a few trying moments where something spills, where family members get into an argument, children cry, a smoke alarm goes off, you lose electrical power, tea spills, a gift breaks, a sweater does not fit, the family dog eats the chocolate under the tree, the family board game gets too competitive. The list is long of all the things that can go wrong at family get-togethers, and I want to reflect on a way of coping with these moments.
We celebrated Christmas dinner at my brother's house in Peru, Vermont the day after we were originally supposed to gather. Due to the weather forecast, many family members did not want to travel on the back roads of Vermont in a snowstorm, so we moved Christmas dinner to December 26. Our meal was lovely despite some of the things that went wrong.
My niece who lives in Bozeman, Montana had her flight cancelled. My father, in his effort to get my invalid mother into the car, forgot his hearing aids, which greatly hindered his ability to engage in group conversations. My brother and sister-in-law who were hosting the dinner had a glitch when they were both trying to use the oven at the same time—for different foods which needed different cooking temperatures, and the traffic jam with the oven postponed dinner. The delay would not have been a problem except my 89-year-old mother has very little stamina, so the 45 minute wait meant that she ended up resting on the couch in the living room while the rest of us remained in the kitchen.
I watched as my eleven-year-old cousin once removed, Gunner, walked into the living room to talk with grandma, who was lying on the couch looking sad and uncomfortable. He propped up her head with a pillow, and asked her if she would like some water. She did. He returned with the water and held the glass to her lips as he supported her head with his other hand. Soon the two of them were laughing and talking. Gunner did this without any prompting, and it occurred to me that the best antidote to these trying moments is to look to see what person in the room is having the greatest struggle and see if you can help that person have a good time. For the rest of the evening, Gunner was happier and grandma was certainly happier.
A wise woman I once knew taught her two grandsons this principle. When they were in middle school, she said to them before Thanksgiving dinner, "Your job is to make sure everyone is having a good time. When you have accomplished that, you can go watch football." They learned their lesson well, and every family gathering they made sure all adults were engaged and smiling, and these two boys have grown into incredible young men - one of them became captain of the Gettysburg lacrosse team and is now an architect living on an Indian reservation in North Dakota, and the other is now a minister at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. I encourage you in your next family gathering to reach out to the person in the room who is struggling the most and needs your youthful effervescence.
Despite some challenges, during our 9 days in Vermont, good things happened: we lost power only twice; we got in some cross country skiing and reading, and we watched one episode of Planet Earth.
What I learned in this episode of Planet Earth—a series, which I highly recommend to you---is that we think too simplistically about the natural world. We tend to think of the saying "red in tooth and claw," which suggests merciless conflict and competition. When we think of nature, we tend to think only of the survival of the fittest.
But in the natural world there is incredible interdependence and interconnection. Nature is about relationships more than competition. An ecosystem involves hundreds of different organisms from different species, and they are interdependent. Nature shows us organisms living together and relying on each other more than it shows us competition and survival of the fittest.
We could apply these lessons to our own lives. Our human world is about relationships more than competition even though at times it might not seem that way. I know that as we finish the semester and as we hear from colleges it feels as though life is about survival of the fittest, but that is not true. Remember that your human relationships are more valuable than anything else that life can offer.
So at your next holiday gathering, I suggest that you consider taking a lesson from Planet Earth and focus on the interdependence of the family unit and how you might enhance the experience. Look for the person who may need your attention and focus, at least for a time, on that person. It will lead to a far more memorable celebration.