“Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The truth of Leo Tolstoy’s observation is unavoidable at Christmas. And you don’t need to practice mindfulness to notice how exposure to fathers and siblings, aunts and in-laws, correlates with bubbling irritations, a subtle sense of sinking, or worse. So why do we go home at Christmas?
A number of factors may be at play: the expectations of others; hope that this year will be different; failures of imagination. But I suspect that something very deep in our psyches pulls and tugs us at this time of year. It’s a love that draws us back to them, though it’s a type of love that’s often hard to live with.
Its tricky dynamics have been tracked by the German psychotherapist, Bert Hellinger. He calls it conscience.
He does not mean conscience as a sense of right and wrong, but conscience as a sense that involuntarily shapes our behaviour to fit in with our group. You feel it when you return to the parental home and feel instantly infantilized, as if all your efforts to grow up grew cold. Or you become a bossy eldest sister again, or an invisible middle brother, or the one who joshes and jokes. Why? You become the square block that fits into the square hole forged for you.
It seems impossible to resist, as if in doing so you’d spoil Christmas quite as badly as the supermarket running out of sprouts. That’s the power of the need to belong, to do it right. Defiance provokes anxiety and guilt as well as anger and hate. By Boxing Day, you feel bound in an impossible bind. Why do we go home at Christmas?
We go like birds migrating to the poles. For all the testiness and tempers, the return tells us we have a place. Conversely, it’s the reason why being alone at Christmas is such a painful predicament that may be experienced as a kind of psychic death.
Hellinger came to his realisations in the aftermath of the Second World War. He is German and wondered how it could be that ordinary citizens became complicit in the terrible deeds of the Third Reich. Group conscience is at work not only in families but nations too, he concluded, and explains how during times of war people will routinely kill, sacrifice, and terrorize for their fellows and country regardless of cause. Only an exceptional individual can stand above a collective.
“A clear or a guilty conscience has little to do with good and evil; the worst atrocities and injustices are committed with a clear conscience, and we feel quite guilty doing good when it deviates from what others expect of us,” he explains in his book, Love’s Hidden Symmetries. Similarly, feeling innocent has little to do with following your moral compass, at least in the first instance. Rather, it is to know that you belong because you are behaving as the conscience of your group requires.
Freud said that becoming an individual is a psychological achievement because an individual is someone who has negotiated the welter of affective pressures that fill the environments in which he or she lives. We are caught in love’s web, for good or ill, and become who we are mostly in response to those who are physically and psychically around us. It begins in our families, extends to our lovers, and is filled out by the circles that make up the communities and organisations, the society and culture in which we live.
So this Christmas, be tolerant not just of others, but of yourself. You are caught in a network of psychological connections that brought you life and, in a sense, to which you owe your life. It’s tough. But if you can receive what’s good, it will sustain you.