Dear John: We’re Celebrating Genocide

What’s a guy to do when a holiday goes against everything he believes in?

Dear John,

So, my least favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, is coming up, and I am looking forward to the tradition in our home: a big battle with my parents over the best way to “celebrate” our national founding of genocide of Native Americans, our national history of building a country with the labor of enslaved people, and our national values of might makes right, the rich get richer, and corporations are people, too. These things bother me every day, but never more than on a day filled with fake Pilgrim nonsense and a ritual of gluttony and animal cruelty. To me, Thanksgiving is everything I don’t like all rolled into one day.

So back to my problem. My ideal Thanksgiving would be to volunteer someplace that serves Thanksgiving dinners to people who are hungry – I would be happy to do this by myself. I’m not trying to bring everyone else down or spoil anyone’s holiday, I just want to be true to myself. (I am 20 years old and live with my parents.) But my parents, the last few years when I’ve said this was going to be how I spend Thanksgiving, have pitched complete fits, saying everyone coming to dinner (grandparents, etc.) wants to see me, the day will be ruined if I’m not there, how can I be so selfish and on and on. It becomes such a big battle that I just give in.

Honestly, I’m not trying to upset my parents. I’m not trying to punish them for anything or tell them how to live. But why shouldn’t I be able to celebrate this holiday in a way that has meaning and is a positive experience for me?

Selfish Or Selfless?

Dear Selfish Or Selfless?,

While our national holidays frequently seem like nothing more than excuses for retailers to throw a sale, Thanksgiving is a celebration of values that even Howard Zinn would have found admirable. Of course, showing your appreciation for all you have by serving people who have far less would be a wonderful way to honor the true spirit of Thanksgiving, but having a loving extended family who are anxious to see you is something to be thankful for, too. And I really don’t think you have to choose one completely at the expense of the other.

Judging by your take-no-prisoners introductory paragraph, I suspect your take on Thanksgiving comes across (to your parents, at least) less like an attempt to return to a holiday untainted by gluttony and commercialism and more like a scorched-earth rejection of everything they hold dear. (And be honest: how far off would they be in that assessment?) Next year (or even this year, if it’s not too late), tell them you are looking forward to seeing your grandparents and other loved ones, but you also feel strongly that you want to help other people who have not been as fortunate as you have been. To that end, you would like to spend Thanksgiving morning volunteering, but you will be home in the early afternoon to spend the rest of the day with your family. This strikes me as a very reasonable compromise, and it will force you and them to reveal your true intentions: whether you are as interested in serving as you are in letting your parents know how thoroughly you reject their values and beliefs, and whether they are as interested in making sure you catch up with Grandma as they are in squashing this rebelliousness (to them) out of you.

One more thing. I suspect places that serve people who need food and shelter probably have a small army of like-minded people who show up at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Don’t forget they could use your help the other 363 days of the year, too.


Dear John,

I’m the youngest of three adult children in our later 20s–my older brother and sister are both married. We have a very small, tightly knit family (no cousins) and are extremely close to our parents. Over my father’s recent birthday, I wasn’t able to make it home and felt guilty enough…until I visited the next week and my dad confided in me (he and I have struck up a genuine friendship, past the normal father/son) that my brother was extremely disrespectful to him and my mom over some really mundane things and that he (my dad) is feeling a lot of lasting resentment about it. This was all exacerbated by the fact that his wife just seems to make matters worse by egging him (my brother) on.

He’s always been a great parent and I feel bad for him that he is feeling genuine resentment towards one of his children. I’ve always been the one in my family to keep everyone smiling and keep things in perspective. With the holidays coming up, my question is–is there any way to broach this subject with them to avoid the inevitably tense communication they’ll have? Is this really any of my business? Should I stay out of it? How do I bring any of this up with my new sister-in-law? Saying nothing isn’t much of an option, because my family is extremely pig-headed and if nothing is done, the feelings will be left to fester for months (if not years) to come.

Youngest And Most Confused

Dear Youngest And Most Confused,

It’s fantastic that you can step outside of your family’s dynamics and view their behavior with some objectivity. But it’s unfair for anyone, including you, to appoint you the family referee just because you’re not as stubborn and non-communicative as the rest of them.

Why did your Dad share this with you? I know you say that you and he are true friends, but it’s never as simple as that. A good relationship between a father and an adult son can feel like friendship, but it always carries history, baggage, and a power imbalance that prevent it from being an ordinary friendship. If he told you your brother had been disrespectful as part of a conversation in which it just came up, that’s fine. But if he told you because he knew you would intercede and take it upon yourself to mediate, then he’s taking advantage of you. Your father has to learn to say what’s on his mind to the people who need to hear it, not to you. When this all happened, he should have said, “Whoa, we can talk about this (whatever it was), but if you intend to speak to me or your mother in such a disrespectful fashion, I would suggest you leave and let me know when you’re ready to discuss this like respectful adults.” Not having done that, he could call your brother up now and say much the same thing. Instead, he quietly seethes and dumps it in your lap.

Don’t take this on yourself. I know you love and care about your Dad, but if he ends up feeling bad or resentful, that’s not your fault, nor is it your problem to solve. The most I would do is urge him to talk to your brother if he has a problem with him, but beyond that, I would stay out of it.


Dear John,

I have a Thanksgiving-related problem that is making me more and more anxious the closer it gets. I am a single woman in my mid-30s. I will be spending Thanksgiving Day at my parents’ house, as I do almost every year. It’s normally a very pleasant day and I look forward to it, but not this year, because joining us will be quite a few relatives I haven’t seen since I was a child. They live on the West Coast and my parents used to be pretty close to them, but without going into a lot of detail, there was a falling out, many years without contact, all of which came to an end with a reconciliation early this past year. That part is wonderful and there really does seem to have been a sincere attempt by everyone to put this dispute (which was silly as such things usually are) behind them. There has been a lot of communication these past several months, but this holiday will be the first time we’ve all visited together.

This is my problem, and I just spent five minutes trying to come up with the right way to describe it but the only way is to be blunt: I dread seeing all these people again because I am ashamed and embarrassed at how obese I have become. I have had a very negative self-image due to my weight problems for many years now, but it’s one thing to meet someone for the first time and quite another to reunite knowing they are thinking to themselves, “Wow – that’s Donna?? What the heck happened??” I won’t even be able to look them in the eye so as to avoid that look of pity and surprise that I am not completely unfamiliar with. And on a day with a big meal at the heart of it, no less!

My question is, is there a way to avoid this? Should I email them a picture first just so they’re not surprised? (Of course, I wouldn’t email it as if that was why I was doing it.) Make a joke of it when we first see each other just to get it out there? Or just not say anything, give them a few minutes to process it, and move on? I am so full of dread (not for the whole day, just for this moment) I know I am not thinking clearly. What do you think I should do?

Not The Girl They Remember

Dear Not The Girl They Remember,

I can tell how self-conscious you feel, but your relatives haven’t been preserved in amber all these years, either. Twenty years or so is a long time, and some of them will probably be dwelling so thoroughly on their own…declines, let’s call them, that they will barely notice yours. Have you ever been to a high school reunion? You go with an acute awareness of the many ways in which you’re not eighteen any more, then you get there and immediately realize no one else is either.

As to what to do to prepare them (and yourself) for your reunion, I think emailing them a picture is going a little far, but a well-timed self-deprecating comment would be fine if it puts you a bit more at ease. And that’s really what I want you to take away from this: this is to put YOU at ease, not them. You don’t owe them an explanation or justification for how you look. But if acknowledging it relieves some of the tension you feel, then sure, go ahead.

You know, though, that this is about more than seeing your relatives on Thanksgiving. To really address this problem, you have to learn to accept the way you look. This is not to say you should resign yourself to being overweight (you shouldn’t), nor does it mean you should strive to achieve a body type that is unrealistic for you (you definitely shouldn’t). It simply means you have to take whatever steps you have to take to be healthy – and again, please don’t misunderstand me: you can be perfectly healthy with a body that bears very little resemblance to the fantasies fed to us by the media – and wherever those steps lead, you should feel happy with how you look when you get there.

Originally appeared at

Photo debbiesphotoshop / flickr

About John Simpson,

John is a middle-aged family man from Providence. If you learn from your mistakes, he’s brilliant. His column runs regularly on


  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    “genocide” is a word. It has a meaning. In fact, the meaning is so specific that Clinton told his staff not to use it in connection with the late unpleasantness in Rwanda because the word would require him to do something about it. Ditto Kofi Annan, who was busily spiking reports from the UN military types in Rwanda at the time.
    See Mann’s “1491”. Disease killed about 90-95% of the Native Americans from Hudson Bay to Tierra del Fuego, most long before a white man had been in the area. That was not intentional, the germ theory of disease not having been discovered. What the whites found as they moved west was relict societies trying to recover from the Great Death, which they barely understood. The Pilgrims were able to use some land already cleared by the locals because the locals were all dead of smallpox they got from shipwrecked French fishermen.
    What we had was the replacement of one culture by another, with remarkably little violence compared to other such replacements. See the Germanic tribes against the Romans. See the Germanic invaders of Britain. The Muslims went into India and killed 60-80 million Hindus. The Bantu people expanded south dislplacing and or killing the Khoisans. The Chinese expanded west overwhelming many local populations who would have preferred to be left alone. The Aztecs came from someplace or other to set up a vicious, repressive regime in the Valley of Mexico. But only our experience gets the blame.
    Reason is…pretending to be upset about such things marks you as a Morally Superior Person. Problem is, everybody knows better. That’s so Sixties.

  2. Dear Not the Girl they remember.

    I was struck by this:

    “I won’t even be able to look them in the eye so as to avoid that look of pity and surprise that I am not completely unfamiliar with.”

    So for 20 years you have not seen these family members, so who has been using that familiar look of pity and surprise all this time?

    I fear that there is little you can do to prepare yourself for the day. What I would recommend is being ready to notice where those looks are coming from. As John said, the world is not encased in amber, so if those looks are about they should identify who has attempted to encase a moment in time in amber.

    For people who do that, it is their jeweled prison and not yours.

  3. Dear Youngest And Most Confused,

    You seem to have three barrels to carry – youngest – most confused – and peace maker. It’s a common problem.

    I take it it also implies that you elder brother, and probably his wife, look down on you and your youth. They will also probably love the idea that you are in some way confused. It does sound as if someone has power issues and likes to express power.

    I’m reminded of the story op the Angry Brahman – he walked for weeks to give Buddha a piece of his mind. When he arrived he did so, and Buddha listened. When the Brahman was finished he was thanked for having come such a long way and for the gift he had brought, but Buddha believed that only the angry Brahman found it valuable so it was handed back.

    Handing disrespect back with kindness is the best option. It may not stop the disrespect, but it also does not damage you.

    I suspect that you will not be able to remain divorced and unaffected by the dynamics, and the more aloof you are the more they will use you as a pawn in a game they play. I would be prepared with gaming gambits that they just don’t expect.

    If they try to play with barrels – hand them back! They are not your’s, so why should others burden you with their imaginary barrels? The barrels only have weight if you agree to carry them on your back.

    It is odd how people’s postures change when they are made to carry their own weighty views! P^)

  4. Dear Selfish Or Selfless?

    I think you are confused and conflicted. You say ” My ideal Thanksgiving would be…”

    First you reject the whole premise of Thanks Giving and then you state you have an ideal version? You seem to have an issue with boundaries and language.

    If you are unhappy with the underpinnings of Thanks Giving then call is something you do agree with. How about National Shame Day? Words have power and specific thinking attacked to them. If it is such a bad thing, why would you be looking for a way to “celebrate this holiday in a way that has meaning and is a positive experience” for you? What exactly are the Positives and Negatives for you, and how are they true opposites?

    Conviction and Morality walk hand in hand. You can’t be a part time person of conviction. There is no 99% and the 1% does not count. It is black or white. It’s how those convictions are then made manifest is where the gray creeps in.

    As for it being your ideal to volunteer on a certain day – The homeless, destitute and so many other people are not just for Christmas and other holidays. There is nothing ideal in being a lone parent with children poor health and little to no money 365 days of the year. You may think it an heroic gesture to volunteer for one day, but that is nothing compared to the heroism of such a person fighting day by day to give their kids the best start in life. So many don’t have the luxury of being confused over language – they have to call it just as it is.

    Many think it’s a great idea to volunteer on certain calendar days. They want to make themselves feel better and even noble. It’s an emotional band-aid on an emotional wound. From that superior mind set they can only look down on others. Many people who are in need of help don’t need that. They certainly don’t need a patronizing pat on the back by a one time visitor. What many do welcome is something that is free and costs nothing – it’s called time! That way the one day of the year that they really do need a pat on the back is chosen by them. It means so much more to the person with the back – If the person with the hand gets something in return it’s also far more valuable and made more so by being given freely.

    I’ll quote Terry Pratchet’s Character Granny Weatherwax – Crone – Witch – Wise Woman:

    ““the start and finish is helpin’ people when life is on the edge. Even people you don’t like. Stars is easy, people is hard.””

    It seems to me the whole issue is about you gaining autonomy from you parents. When you are doing that it is never a good idea to use people, such as the homeless, as symbolic fence posts while you work out where the boundaries are. It is disrespectful to the fence posts and does not create true or valid boundaries.

    One question you may need to ask yourself is, where did you learn that people can be treated like fence posts in a boundary dispute?


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