I’d spent the day at a dads retreat, talking about how to intentionally shape the culture within our families and households. I was still mulling over the day when my 17-year-old son Aidan plopped down on the couch next to me. I decided to get his opinion on the matter, so I asked him, “What is one of the strengths of our family culture?” He didn’t hesitate to offer an answer.
He said one of our “COVID positives” (our family’s name for the graceful, unexpected blessings we’ve found intertwined with this painful epoch in human history) has been the cancellation of most extracurricular activities, so the whole family has been able to gather at the dinner table almost every evening. He’s right—our family dinners have been a highlight of this tumultuous year.
Family dinners sound great, in theory. However, I don’t have many fond memories of family dinners in my childhood. I remember tense silences between parents, siblings storming off angrily, and canned green beans that became more inedible the longer you refused to eat them. So, the evening of my conversation with Aidan, I decided to sit back and observe our family’s interactions during the meal. I was startled by what I saw. We spent 80% of the meal talking about, laughing about, and celebrating one thing:
Caitlin refuses to eat anything but leafy greens, Quinn is only interested in the fried food, Dad eats them in order from least desirable to most desirable, Aidan isn’t interested in the food at all (his plate sits empty because he needs his mouth empty for talking), and Mom loves it all. Aidan wants to make comedy when he grows up, Quinn wants to make money, and Caitlin for all intents and purposes just wants to make peace. We are family, so we have a lot in common. And we are rich with diversity.
The celebration of differences is the difference between a joyful sense of completion and a toxic culture of aggression.
The whole thing made me think about how COVID has made a family out of nations—and out of humanity—once again. Prior to the pandemic, most of us were busy with our day-to-day lives—our extracurriculars if you will—and it was easy to pretend we weren’t related to each other, let alone living in the same household. COVID changed that. It slowed us down. It showed us that we are deeply interconnected. A microscopic bug has hitchhiked around the globe, from one human host to another. Now we are all keenly aware: your very breath can change my life, perhaps even end it. Now, it feels very much like we are all gathering around the same dinner table, night after night. As a result, our differences are on full display.
I think it’s safe to say we have not been celebrating them.
Last night, I went out of my way to create a dinner table of national politics—I watched the primetime news shows on two very different networks, from beginning to end. Like most people, I lean in one ideological direction (for what it’s worth, fifteen years ago, I leaned pretty heavily in the opposite direction), so of course I agreed with the gist of the content on one network more than another. But I hadn’t tuned in to agree or disagree. I had tuned in to watch the culture. This is what I saw, on both networks:
Not only were differences not celebrated, they were feared.
Of course, some differences are scary and do need to be called out and resisted. White supremacists at one extreme and anarchists at the other, for instance. These folks violate the rule of law and the basic rules of human dignity. In any healthy household, there are consequences for going out of your way to break the dinner dishes. However, the vast majority of our ideological differences fall into a different category of behavior:
Conservative ideas and liberal ideas are not whole ideas. They are a yin and yang. They are not meant to compete with each other, they are meant to complete each other. Together, they provide balance, not doom. Nevertheless, the folks on both networks seemed to suggest that if the other side was given any quarter, our way of life as we know it will come to an end. It reminded me of toxic family systems in which each parent is fighting for the allegiance of every child. It is the opposite of a healthy culture. And it makes for lousy dinner table conversation.
So, what do you say, siblings of mine from every walk of life and almost every degree of political ideology? Shall we allow the parents to continue to divide us out of their own broken self-interest? Shall we continue to be unwitting pawns in their power struggle? Or shall we take responsibility for building a national culture that kicks the toxic competition to the curb, celebrates our differences, and enjoys the relatively healthy completion that results?
The dinner table dialogue is ours to determine, if we so choose.
And no, as far as I’m concerned, you don’t have to eat the green beans.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable, and his next book, True Companions, will be published in 2021.