Lindsey Weishar: Refreshing the art of conversation at the Thanksgiving feast
My Vocation is Love / By Lindsey Weishar
There’s a reason that St. Mother Teresa invites us to begin at home when it comes to ministering to the poor. Noting not only economic poverty, but the proliferation of spiritual poverty in our modern day, she asked, “Are you aware that in your own family, in your own living situation, there may be someone who is very lonely, who feels unloved or hurt?”
For some of us, the reality of this poverty is perhaps most acutely felt when we gather with family for holidays. While some of us are blessed with familial harmony, for others differences in lifestyle, belief systems, and political orientation among family members can lead to interpersonal dynamics that feel anywhere from slightly awkward to openly hostile.
When it comes to engaging in conversation during these gatherings, it seems that Thanksgiving may have slightly higher stakes than even Christmas because the Thanksgiving feast calls us around the table to share a meal. The partaking of food together is central to the act of giving thanks — the abundance we’re sharing a visual symbol of God’s goodness throughout our lives.
To be thankful is also to be vulnerable, which may feel awkward to express in front of family members, whether we feel close to or distant from them. And it may be the case that outside of this special meal, we don’t get as much opportunity as we’d like to gather around the table with those we live with. It is no wonder then that conversation can feel strained, unnatural.
FAMILY CONVERSATION SUGGESTIONS
Whether your family is tight-knit or distant, quiet or incredibly passionate about their beliefs, here are a few ways to facilitate meaningful conversations during the Thanksgiving holiday and beyond.
Discover the interests and joys of the other. We all long to be known. By asking good questions, you can express your desire to see, know, and love your family members more deeply, even the member who seems to be your polar opposite. Two questions I love are: “What’s been bringing you joy lately?” and “What’s been inspiring you lately?” Another way to ask these questions is to inquire about your family member’s hobbies and interests. Such questions humanize the one before us, and invite us to draw closer to them.
Tell stories. My parents have a board game called Life Stories. I love it because the point of the game is solely to tell stories. Some of the questions from the game include: “What’s one way you are like your grandfather?” “Describe something your parents did for fun,” “Name a foreign country you have visited or would like to visit,” and “What’s the best piece of advice your mother gave you?” Consider leaving a question like these at each family member’s place at the table to spark conversation during the meal.
Build family members up. I’ve never tried this, but I love the idea of preassigning the names of all those who will be present for the holiday meal, so that each family member has another family member’s name. In the weeks leading up to the celebration, each person does some “research” on their assigned family member to learn more about what they have been up to (social media is a nice resource). During the Thanksgiving meal, each person takes turns asking a few meaningful questions to their assigned family member (“What’s been your favorite part of your college program / retirement / new job so far?” “What got you interested in that hobby?” “When you visited that state / country, what was the most interesting experience you had?”) and, if they’re feeling brave, also says why they are thankful that person is in the family.
Create shared experiences. If your family is up for it, consider making Thanksgiving an immersive experience. This can be done in a variety of ways beyond sharing cooking duties. Consider inviting a family member with a special interest or hobby to share that hobby during the visit (e.g., pour painting or playing board games). You might have a competition (e.g., creating a contraption that will keep an egg intact when dropped out a window), or volunteer together (e.g., at a local soup kitchen or shelter). Shared experiences can bolster the feeling of community, lead to a deepened appreciation for family members, and also foster organic conversations around the shared activity.
As we prepare to give thanks, and perhaps invite our families and friends into our homes, I pray our conversations may lead us not only to thank God for what we’ve been given, but also who we’ve been given.
Lindsey Weishar is a poet, freelance writer, and native of Champaign who has a master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is executive assistant to the president at Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.