There are two ways to read this quote.
Lincoln might be telling us to “accentuate the positive.” That managing our emotions and deciding to be happy will make us feel happy. In which case, this quote is kind of ironic, given that poor Abe struggled with depression. Seems like there’s a little self-loathing mixed into the words.
When I was a little girl, I sometimes tried to imagine what it would feel like to lose somebody I loved.
I could imagine only the sketchiest approximation, though. I knew I would be very sad, but had no weight or measure of that sadness and couldn’t imagine its nuances. All I knew is that it was likely to be a grief so enormous, I might not survive it.
A lot of years have passed since then, and I’ve lost a brother, several close friends, and my parents. And in a way, I’ve been granted one of the secrets of the universe: the knowledge that as terrifying as grief is, we almost always survive it.
We fear grief as much as we feel it, which only makes our burden heavier. But grief cannot kill us (without our cooperation) so we don’t have to add to our pain with fear.
What we might fear when we feel grief:
Here is the gift-giving credo that has given a pass to all manner of disappointing gifts, from “what were they thinking?” garments to “oh good, something to dust” tsotskes.
Our smiles might freeze on our faces as we rip the wrapping from a package, but whatever is within, we think, “It’s the thought that counts,” because that’s the nice thing to do when someone is nice enough to give us a gift, no matter how ill-conceived—or, frankly, how little thought appears to have actually been put into a gift.
For me, “it’s the thought that counts” has another meaning as well, which traps me in gift-giving OCD. “It’s the thought that counts,” so you have to put a lot of thought into every gift, strive for some sort of gifting nirvana. You have to peer into the souls of friends and loved ones and find the gift that will, if not complete them, at least set them on a path to happiness.
“Don’t get trouble in your mind” is the cheery refrain of a bluegrass chestnut, performed in the video below by the Carolina Chocolate Drops.
I’d never heard the song until a friend posted this video on Facebook the other day, and it just hit me in a sweet spot. Since then, it’s been an earworm.
But unlike most earworms, this one could prove useful.
Politically incorrect as it might be to object to this cheery little rallying cry, it has a dark side. I hear “family first!” and think, “everyone else, distant second.”
The problem is that some of us suffer (or enjoy, depending on how you look at it) a dearth of family, or of nearby family. For us, “family first” can feel a little exclusionary. And sometimes it is, actually, exclusionary.
I have friends who travel to visit family in my hometown, but don’t make time to see me. I’ve had a friend decline to help me in a time of need because family might need her for something.
I hate when friends without family are left to fend for themselves on holidays. At least I have my lovely husband and weird dog. Some of our friends don’t even have that. (And yes, we try to include those friends in our holidays. And yes, every few years we travel to distant family for holidays.)
I’ve always given friends with kids lots of space because I know kids need their parents more than I do. I figured everything would change once the kids were grown. But now the kids are grown and there are grandkids so—family first!
“Family first” is an honorable sentiment. I get it. It’s a matter of setting priorities, of making sure your nearest and dearest get the best of you. But “family first” can also make people myopic. So while you’re family firsting this holiday season, don’t forget those people who stand by you even without the obligation implied by shared bloodlines.
And that “family first” doesn’t (or perhaps shouldn’t) mean “family only.”
Photo of happy family is available at Shutterstock.