The Humanist Dilemma: Should Illness Trump Ideology at Thanksgiving?

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Tolerating Intolerance at Thanksgiving: Both of my parents are hard-line evangelicals, meaning that you must agree with every facet of their perspective in order to truly be a Christian and, by extension, an ethical person. For them politics, religion, and morality are completely inextricable. Disagreeing about something such as tax reform is not a political difference; it is a moral issue. My brother is also an evangelical minister who aligns with my parents’ beliefs; he told me not too long ago that I was immoral and hateful and, of course, going to hell because I attended a Pride parade with my daughter to show support for LGBTQ rights. In my family, proselytizing is not about having an open, honest dialogue about different viewpoints; it is an act of aggression that renders you trapped and cornered like a prey animal in hunting season.

I have lived several states away from them all of my adult life. However, this summer my brother moved about an hour away, and now my parents are coming to his house for Thanksgiving. And, of course, they want me to join them. I was completely prepared to say no, to make a stand and not subject myself and my daughter to another proselytizing holiday dinner, when my father became ill. He has had various heart surgeries over the last few months, and his health continues to be fragile. So, now I feel guilty about not going. My parents have been married nearly fifty years; they are inseparable. My father’s health has caused a great deal of stress and worry for my mother, and with them both being seventy-one, I wonder if making a stand now is more important than being with my father on what may be his last Thanksgiving. They have never respected my nontheistic beliefs or emotional needs, but the little obedient child I was raised to be feels that I should change my mind and go for their sakes. Should I tolerate their aggressive intolerance of my lifestyle because of my father’s ill health, knowing that it won’t be the turkey everyone is seeking to devour, but me?

—Troubled at Thanksgiving


Dear Troubled,

You certainly have my sympathy for a situation without any pain-free options. One choice is to stick to the autonomy you have established and deal with the guilt, while the other is to let down your guard and rejoin the family that you still care about, opening yourself to the probability of being attacked.

Only you can decide which is preferable. The more rational choice is to continue doing what you’ve been doing—keeping your distance–regardless of your father’s illness and likely impending death (which is a situation most of us eventually face), and despite the fact that the physical space you put between yourself and the rest of the family—an excuse for not spending Thanksgiving with them in the past—has been breached. The new proximity doesn’t alter the reason you enforced a separation in the first place, so why should you behave any differently this Thanksgiving?

But this year’s special circumstances are clearly affecting your resolve to avoid your family: they will be nearby; this may be the last chance to see your father; and your mother and other relatives may be in need of re-establishing their bond with you. It also seems like you may be experiencing that need. Aside from the facts, there are emotions that are just as real. For better or worse, you are part of your family, and you have feelings about them. You may want to reconnect or at least give it a shot, before it’s too late for your dad and before you’ve created more of a rift by spurning this invitation.

Perhaps it would be a helpful exercise to think as “selfishly” as possible, not about your relatives’ wishes and reactions per se, but rather about your own: How you would feel if you went versus if you didn’t. Your inclination to skip the event is not sitting well with you. How would you feel if your father died without you seeing him again? Weigh that against the worst-case scenario: you attend and everyone piles on their disapproval. Weigh that also against the possibility, however remote, that they might actually be so eager to see you that they’d refrain from pushing your buttons—even if that may be as likely as a miracle.

You are an adult. You can inform everyone that you and your child will join them because you care about them and would like to share Thanksgiving. But you can also inform them that you won’t be there to be proselytized to. If they want you to spend the holiday with them, they must respect your views and find other things to talk about with you.

Despite the risks, it might be better to take your chances and join them, even if it entails great discomfort or ends with an early, miserable exit. Or it might be better to play it safe and maintain your customary distance, even if that leaves you with a measure of misgivings and regrets now and in the future. Only you can pick the one that seems preferable for you and your daughter—and you may never know which would have turned out better. Enjoy the holiday as much as possible, no matter which choice you make.