The Holidays are here, as I was forcefully reminded today by the profusion of wreaths along 17th Street and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” playing over the loudspeakers at the Safeway, The Holidays are a joyful time for many, but precarious for perhaps even more, and much of the blame needs to go to the “shoulds” associated with this time of year.
“Should” has several official definitions, but the one I’m referring to here, is the synonym of “must” or “ought,” expressing duty (“you really should thank him for the orange and purple scarf), requirement (“you should brush your teeth twice a day”), or expediency (“you should take Route 50 if you want to avoid the traffic”). It’s a word that generally results from the expectation of others.
Expectations can come from many sources. Our families tutor us in what is expected of us in a wide variety of situations: at Christmas time you buy gifts, send cards, and dine em famille; our media may lead us to believe that if we don’t buy our kids the cool new Xbox or iPad2 they’ll be unpopular or unsuccessful; many of us know how religion can instill in us a fear of the consequences of not behaving in a certain way. Of course there is nothing wrong with institutions (family, friends, churches, companies, the broader culture in general) outlining preferred ways of acting. After all, that is an important contributor to the formation and maintenance of a cohesive group. The problem comes with the negative consequences stated or implied for not behaving “as you should,” and/or the “guilt trips” that so often accompany the failure to follow behavioral prescriptions. Guilt is fear-based, and while fear-based rules may be followed, they cause unecessary distress.
Here are some examples of Holiday guilt, ranging from the obvious to the quite subtle:
1. “You should go to your Mom’s for the Christmas holiday; if you don’t she’ll be devastated.”
2. “You should send out Christmas cards to your friends and relatives; after all, they send them to you.”
3. “You shouldn’t serve boiled potatoes for Thanksgiving, they’ll think we’re cheap.
4. “Is it really asking so much of me to go to Midnight Mass?”
5. “You really should light the menorah on every one of the eight nights of Channukah – remember, that’s what you used to do at Grandma’s.”
The guilt in #3 utilizes fear as does #1 by predicting negative consequences. Can you find the guilt in #4? It’s not there explicitly, but by using the “Is it really asking so much?” it sets up a dichotomy: unwarranted inertia vs. a reasonable request which, of course, should be met. Reminiscent of the classic: “When I was your age” employed to make someone feel guilty about their complaining about a task. Slight detour: here’s JumboJoke.com’s version of the ploy:
When I was a kid adults used to bore me to tears with their tedious diatribes about how hard things were when they were growing up, what with walking twenty-five miles to school every morning uphill both ways through year 'round blizzards to their one-room schoolhouse where they maintained a straight-A average despite their full-time after-school job at the local textile mill where they worked for 35 cents an hour just to help keep their family from starving to death. So who are you to complain?
Second slight detour: I intentionally framed #5 as Jewish because Jews are characterized as being particularly adept at the use of guilt (so often invoked by a “should”). In my experience, there is some truth to that characterization, and for two good reasons: First, most Jews have for hundreds of years been forced to live in crowded ghettos where a plethora of rules was necessary to ensure that life went smoothly. Guilt was used to nudge deviant behavior in the “right” direction. Second, and relatedly, the Old Testament and the Talmud (for observant Jews the sacred guide to daily living) supported conformity by listing thousands of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. Remnants of these antecedents still exist in the cultural / familial background of many Jews.
Did you see how guilt crept into #4? Reminding someone of the way they were with their grandparents generally brings back warm memories, so that someone is more likely to accede to the should (in this case, lighting candles each night).
Are their ways of escaping “should” and guilt? Not entirely. Most people are so certain about the right way to do things that they don’t hesitate to push you in what they believe to be the correct direction. But, knowing that “shoulds” tend to operate as I describe them, you can be alert to the devious ways that they can lead to inappropriate guilt (that is, guilt inflicted by someone wanting you to act a certain way, as opposed to how you might want to act). If a guilt-laden “should” thought pops into your head, don’t take it at face value. Restate it so that it offers a positive benefit to you. For example, a phrase like: “It’s been over a week since we visited Aunt Ruth in the hospital – we really should try to swing by” can be rephrased as “It will really mean a lot Aunt Ruth if we visit her at the hospital.”
The Holidays should be a time of joyous celebration, rather than a time of fulfilling obligations that you don’t feel good about or even resent. HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!!