Whether you're headed to a family gathering this week or not, sooner or later it will happen. You'll find yourself at the dinner table surrounded by parents and children, siblings and in-laws. And at one moment or another, you'll find yourself wondering, "What do these people have to do with me?"
Whether you come from a sprawling family with 40 cousins or were raised by a single parent, nothing has the ability to get under your skin, rattle your self-confidence, and turn you into a lunatic the way your family does. And nothing has the same ability to fill you with love either.
To help you prepare for your next family encounter, here are some TED Talks that shed light on these complex relationships and how you can make the most of them:
1. It's OK to talk about how hard it is.
Nerve co-founders Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman launched the parenting site Babble after they had their first child and learned a lot of things other parents had refrained from telling them. Such as, that you might not fall instantly in love with your baby the first moment you see him or her. (Some people do, for others it takes a little longer.) Or that the first months of your child's life might be the loneliest time in your own.
In their talk, they blast through some of parenting's most common taboos--and encourage audience members to talk about them. It's a great idea. Being a parent, or a child, or a spouse, can be very hard work. But at least admitting that out loud removes some of the unrealistic expectation that everything should be perfect all the time.
2. You are not your family.
If you ever need a reminder of this, watch this stunning talk by Zak Ebrahim, who was born with a different name but changed it after his father went to jail for various acts of terrorism. Among them, the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center which left the towers standing but killed six people and injured a thousand more.
Having successfully left his notorious parent behind, why would Ebrahim out himself as the son of terrorist, possibly putting himself in danger? As a child, he was taught to shoot a rifle. He was taught that gay people were sinners and that Jews were inherently evil. Out in the world, he got to know both gay people and Jewish people and learned that they were just...people. He wrote a book and took to the TED stage to remind others that hate can be unlearned, and that a child raised for a specific path can choose another path instead.
3. Your family is...everyone.
Literally everyone. After author AJ Jacobs received an email from a man who claimed to be one of his 80,000 relatives, he began exploring Internet-driven attempts to create and connect family trees. He learned he was related to Jeffrey Dahmer (by marriage), Gwyneth Paltrow, and Barack Obama. In his talk, he describes how family trees have expanded and connected to create the World Family Tree--which has more than 75 million members. That's just a start, he says. In time, we'll have figured out how all or nearly all 7 billion people on earth are connected. So what should we do? Have the world's largest family reunion.
4. Don't just love your family--you must also accept them.
Author Andrew Solomon grew up gay at a time when Time magazine reported that homosexuality "deserves no compassion," and should not be "deemed anything but a pernicious sickness."
Fortunately for everyone, attitudes have changed. But in a world of differently abled, differently configured, or differently oriented people, the lesson still needs to be learned. We need to love our children and all our family members unconditionally, and accept who they are and the lives they create. Because it turns out that while there are only so many gay people, or deaf people, or dwarves, "if you start to think that the experience of negotiating difference within your family is what people are addressing, then you discover that it's a nearly universal phenomenon," as Solomon says is his wise and heartwarming talk. And, he adds, "It turns out, that it's our differences, and our negotiation of difference, that unite us."
5. Give yourself a break.
Humans have been raising their own children since the species first evolved, but suddenly we're all afraid we're doing it wrong, notes parenting author Jennifer Senior in a thought-provoking talk. There's a dizzying array of parenting books that teach you everything from how to raise a gluten-free child to a financially savvy one to a bilingual one--even if you yourself only speak one language. She sees all these books as "a giant candy-colored monument to our collective panic." And, she says, we're setting the bar for ourselves too high.
Instead of fixating on raising a happy, successful, genius child, try simply raising one who works hard and does good in the world. That approach might be better for both parents and children.
6. Care for your own emotional health.
Guy Winch, a psychologist (or "not a real doctor," as people sometimes put it) finds it frustrating that while we all know from an early age to put on a bandage if we cut ourselves--none of us knows how to care for ourselves when we suffer an emotional wound. In fact we often make things worse by scolding ourselves that we are indeed worthless when we fail or are rejected. Then we screw ourselves up even more with a phenomenon called "ruminating"--mentally replaying an unpleasant scene or obsessing about a moment when we were hurt or upset.
Knowing how to counteract these thought patterns and how to take care of ourselves when we're down is as important to our health as learning to put ice on a sprain, Winch says in his engaging talk. We should all take the time to learn.
7. Treasure your family members, even while they're driving you crazy.
In one of the most touching TED Talks I've ever seen, Carmen Agra Deedy describes following her septuagenarian, Cuban, determined-to-drive-although-she-shouldn't mother around the parking lot at the mall at Christmas time. Just as she's feeling mortified by her mother's behavior, two strangers reframe her perspective by noting that her mother reminds them of their own--whom they miss badly.
The wonderful, terrible, zany, unreasonable cast of characters who make up our families are also a connection to our roots, and our most essential selves. We have to keep that connection strong for as long as we can. Because one day, way too soon, it will be gone.