Family, Food, and Family Feuds

An official occasion of uncomfortable people.

Sam Bush / 11.23.21

In his play, “Family Reunion,” T. S. Eliot offers a fitting description for a Thanksgiving get-together: “For what is more formal than a family dinner? An official occasion of uncomfortable people. Who meet very seldom, making conversation.” For most people across the country, this depiction is still on the tame side of things.

This week, people will travel hundreds of miles to see relatives they see only once a year. While it can be a joyous reunion, it can also bring to light a deluge of taboo subjects that have been successfully kept in the dark all year long – unreturned phone calls, vaccinations, future children, conspiracy theories, singledom…should I go on? Sometimes once a year proves to be too much.

Advertisers have nurtured the idea that a typical family consists of smiling faces around a glowing table – the kids are dressed nicely and not crying, the wife is rested, the husband is self-confident, the grandparents are proud and everyone is sober. Granted, that may, in fact, describe a snapshot of your own Thanksgiving meal, but I’m willing to bet that it’s just that: a snapshot. Happiness may well be in the mix but so is a slew of other things like envy, resentment, hurt, and confusion. Many people feel a strange ambivalence toward their families. They are both intolerable and essential.

A recent poll showed that three out of five people dread family gatherings during the holidays. Fifty-eight percent think their entire family drinks too much and even more think that one family member always takes things too far (statistics show that it’s usually an uncle). So what keeps us coming back year after year? Surely we’re not there for the pecan pie and bourbon alone. Whole Foods and the corner liquor store could easily meet our dietary needs without requiring any human interaction whatsoever.

Despite their shortfalls, most families endure. Yes, there is cattiness, backbiting, and a pecking order enmeshed in every family dynamic, but those characteristics don’t distinguish families from any other group of people. G. K. Chesterton summed it up nicely when saying, “The family is a good institution because it is uncongenial. Aunt Elizabeth is unreasonable, like mankind. Papa is excitable, like mankind. Our younger brother is mischievous, like mankind. Grandpa is stupid, like the world.” In other words, family does not give us anything more than what it promises.

In truth, we put up with it all because family remains one of the most primal parts of our identity. What sets the family apart from nearly everything else in life is that it is something given to us rather than earned. As theologian Eric Mascall once said, “For millions of men and women the family is the one and only setting in which human relationships are not governed predominantly by considerations of bargaining.” The key word here, of course, is predominantly. Lord knows there is plenty of bargaining in marriages, and most families have an unspoken agreement of what is/isn’t acceptable conversation at the dinner table. But you still can’t trade your older brother for a little sister. You simply get what you’re given. Scripture tells us that if we accept blessings from God we must accept trouble as well, that it may be a mixed bag, but be grateful that you were given a bag in the first place, OK? While true, this kind of reasoning can sound more like a defensive dad than a loving God. In truth, there must be a stronger case out there for the reason for family.

Even at its worst, family has one thing going for it: life can be extremely difficult. After all, nothing brings people together like a common enemy, and this year has been chock full of them: loneliness, anxiety, financial instability. I’m not sure that we would huddle together so tightly if not for the storm raging outside. The reality of the situation — that suffering is often what brings families together — seems counter-intuitive at first. We often think that a sudden windfall of money would solve family strife, but money often drives families apart. An unexpected diagnosis, on the other hand, has a way of getting estranged siblings back in touch. It’s been said that the secret to reconciliation is for one person to become terminally ill. For many of us, when all else fails, family is something to fall back on.

Of course, when even family fails, there is God. There is a reason why “kinfolk” is such an apt metaphor for the church. Early Christians used familial language all the time, in some contexts because they would leave their own earthly families. In our present context, the church can serve as a placeholder for those whose families are complicated. As fallen as the church may be, it is meant to be a community of unconditional bonds of love. It is a place to which we belong, a place to come home to despite years of estrangement. The church is wide enough to include dissent, scandal, and schism. And yet, by sheer grace, it endures.

Part of why family is so frustrating is that it reveals that we are not solitary beings with total agency over our lives. Try as we might to rebel against our genetic makeup and family history, we do not ultimately get to decide where we come from or who we are. After a certain age, the more you become yourself, the more obvious your family traits become. And yet, while that idea can invite a sense of helplessness, it can also provide a sense of comfort. Should you all come to recognize that you share the same illnesses and afflictions, a family can look more like a support group than a debate tournament.

So, when you’re sitting around a table of people you only somewhat like on Thursday, consider that the very awkwardness that manifests in Thanksgiving gatherings is a roundabout reminder that you can’t have it any other way. It may not be the family you would have chosen, but it’s the family you have been given.