Heading toward the often stressful, overly complicated, ironically fatiguing holiday season, I had a small epiphany. I’d been trying once again to figure out how to be zen about the big family get-togethers that can fray even the most solid nerves.
Dynamics are never easy in any household, much less a series of households brought together as much through blood as love. And I have many weaknesses in such situations: a sensitivity to pick up on the pettiness that a less-observant person doesn’t see, an amateur anthropologists’ tendency to analyze things, an idealistic notion that conversation should be a back-and-forth, not a monologue.
But this year I took a page from landscape painting, and learned a simple, perhaps obvious lesson: what not to focus on. Intriguingly, the genre of landscape painting that we know so well – the Hudson River school, Canaletto’s Venetian scenes – did not exist in full bloom before the 18th century. Pre-Enlightenment, artists typically depicted a landscape as a backdrop to a religious scene or a portrait. A natural scene was not the main subject of a canvas. Why?
People saw themselves within the land; they were farmers, landowners, conquerors. But they did not see themselves stepping back and viewing the land and their surroundings. Once we could view nature as a landscape, we could see it with fresh eyes.
The lesson here in some ways is the art of focus. Sometimes one needs to focus on a troubling relationship, certainly. But at other times, perhaps it’s best to take a step back and put a relationship in wider perspective. Chances are, you’ll see new facets of the situation by seeing the big picture – and you’ll realize that petty differences are unimportant.
Try it: picture your family as a landscape. It could be a grand canyon, or a churning sea, or a dramatic series of mountain peaks. View each person as just one wave, hill or chasm. Suddenly, you’re able to focus on the larger, beautiful, frail, wondrous fuller scene of life. And you’ll maybe learn something new about family dynamics. Ah, zen!