The Season of Make-Believe

Cartoon by Roz Chast of The New Yorker

It’s the time of year when we’re all supposed to be pie-eyed with gratitude and cornbread-stuffed with love of humanity. It is also the time of year when surly shoppers clog the grocery aisles with bloated carts and your normally-civil neighbor snarls over the last size medium red sweater, when the streets sparkle with decorations and explode with honking horns.

Even in the midst of the Deprecession, a good percentage of the 99% will spend most of the holiday season contributing to corporate profits. We may voice the sentiment that it’s not material things that really matter, but – let’s be real here – we also don’t want to show up at Mom’s without decent gifts for everyone, and we don’t want to offend our families by saying we really just don’t need any more of the fruits of capitalism. After all, the gifts we don’t need are just one of the many burdens we carry home with us for the sake of our loved ones.

I doubt a truly authentic holiday experience is really better than our imaginary one. Some people think about the tragic consequences of the Pilgrims’ arrival in the New World, the overseas sweatshop workers manufacturing holiday gifts, and the hundreds of future garage sale items purchased each season, but most people don’t want to be the one who sours an occasion with too much reality. Ultimately, our relationships are worth more to us than our ideals. We may not want to worsen global warming, but we do want to fly across the country to be with our families. Hypocrisy? Maybe. And we want to be ourselves, but usually not so much so that we’re willing to start an argument at the Thanksgiving table. Those “rules” about not talking religion and politics exist for a reason. Most of the year I’m honest to a fault, but once the calendar tips into November, I’m happy to trade the whole truth for a half truth that makes peace, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

If we had perfect families who were perfectly understanding, it might make sense to be perfectly truthful. Unlike the trinkets and tokens we’ll give this season, though, truth can really only be given to those who are open to receiving it. The rest of us whose family lives are somewhere on the continuum of imperfect – which is to say most of us – decide what we want our memories to be like, and then, as best we can, we go about trying to be the people we wish we were, at least for a few days. Our great gift to others is not what we carry in our suitcases, but our willingness to be more accepting, more emotionally generous versions of ourselves.

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