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Everyday Ethics

Oblication: I thought I invented the word, but one quick web search, and I find I’m not alone. Nope, I guess I will not be the only one trepidatiously packing her best behavior along with her sunscreen and her flip flops this December for an in-law-tastic family holiday vacation.

Now, what you need to know is, I struck gold with my in-laws, in much the same way I did with my husband. Not only are they smart, reasonable, caring, thoughtful, kind, funny, and etc., they even lean politically in the same direction as we do so we don’t argue heinously over current events at the dinner table. But best of all, they live all the way out in Alaska. And we all know what they say about absence….

So normally, we’re all very fond indeed.

My in-laws are generous with their time and advice, and, this vacation season, are being more than generous with their timeshare property too, giving up an extra week of their own time so we can all stay together for a week and enjoy the vacation together.

So why do I feel like a condemned prisoner being led, drum-roll and all, to the gallows?

(Read on for Hillary’s holiday survival tips…)

I’m not the kind of gal who likes a whole lot of family togetherness. I live within city blocks of my whole family, so I get plenty – some would say too much – of it with my own side of the clan. And I’ve just never been comfy being on my P’s and Q’s with other people’s relatives. (I’m a bit social-phobic.) The idea of spending 7 days cooped up, smiling politely and nodding as we negotiate our way through decisions both great and small (who’ll grab up the check on dinners out, where we should souvenir shop), makes me break out in a sweat, and we haven’t even hit the beach yet. From the moment the idea of this family trip came up, I experienced panic, resentment, anger, then great steaming heaps of guilt and shame.

Why all the angst?

I don’t get paid for vacation time at my job, so I can’t afford to take much of it during the year. To ‘squander’ it in a manner not of my own choosing means I can’t afford to go where I wanted to go, when I wanted to go. I’m losing a week’s pay and a week’s time going to a destination I wouldn’t have picked. And instead of relaxing, letting it all hang out, now I’m trying to impress the parents of the man I married, practically 24/7, so they won’t think he hitched himself to a witch. I’m eating what they like, going where they want, staying on their territory, under their scrutiny. For someone with control issues and social phobia, this is a bit of a nightmare. I picture myself returning far more stressed than when I left, and the mental image has me physically hyperventilating.

This emotional stew was what brought me to think of the Holiday Oblication as a topic for Everyday Ethics. I feel like a real jerk for looking at any nearly-free vacation with anything less than complete gratitude; as if my jaundiced eye itself is a slap in the face of my generous in-laws (and my own parents, who donated frequent flier miles to help us afford the trip). My feelings seem inappropriate, though they are very real. My individual wants seem so petty when compared with happiness of my family. In my effort to be a better person, a more considerate member of my newly extended clan, don’t I have a moral duty to sublimate my own desires – at least to some extent?

I thought long and hard, and I decided I did. And it seems popular opinion is with me. This holiday season, many thousands will be joining me, girding their loins, pasting on smiles, and visiting grannies and great-uncle Morties, fruitcakes in hand.

So, how do we oblicationers balance our own needs with our family obligations this holiday season? I found some decent tips on the ‘net, but here are some further thoughts of my own.

My advice? Stop anticipating. If I go in with a bad attitude, I’m sure to make some of what I’m dreading happen. If, however, I go into this with no expectations, there’s a strong possibility things will be much better than I fear. If they’re not, well, worrying ahead of time won’t help, it’ll only make me miserable that much longer. Plus, I’m much more likely to take out my anxiety and grumpiness on my generous relatives and innocent husband, who don’t deserve it. Just because they like closeness and I’d rather run screaming from it, that doesn’t mean they should be punished.

That brings me to my next piece of advice for myself and anyone else oblicationing this season. Don’t assume. Maybe my mother in-law isn’t over the moon about this trip either. Maybe my father in law would rather be footloose and fancy free without his kids too. But family is family, and responsibility is responsibility. And, during the holidays, don’t we have a duty to try and connect? I should try to have some empathy for their position too.

Third tip-to-self: Don’t try too hard to impress. Yes, I want them to have a good opinion of me, but I want that opinion to be of me, not some phony simulacrum. If I need some time for myself, I can – and should – peel off from the familial herd here and there to have a little fun sans in-laws.

Last tip: Be in the moment. Look around, soak up the scenery. This may not be the vacation location I really hoped for, but it probably has some surprisingly wonderful treats in store. Travel is all about the new and unexpected, so it’s important to let those new experiences present themselves. I need to be open to them. So, I’m telling myself, “Don’t pout and simmer in what isn’t. Appreciate what is.”

Hey, at least it won’t be NYC in December!

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UPDATE: 12/12/09: I just got back, and… surprise! I had a total ball. My fears were for naught, and I absolutely enjoyed getting to know my in-laws better. Taking the risk was worth it in every way, and I think I can safely say our family has bonded more tightly. I learned to relax and be more open, less phobic about being social. I’m so glad I went!


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