Seasonal Sensitivity

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Published:
December 1, 2022

All I could wonder was, “Why is she being so rude?” Hey, I was just making small talk.

Wedding receptions are interesting social events to navigate, especially when you don’t know any of the other guests. We had just witnessed the nuptials of my colleague and were waiting for dinner to be served. Everyone around the table exchanged seemingly innocuous tidbits of their lives as one does: “Whose guest are you—bride or groom?” “How do you know the couple?” “What do you do for work?” Unsurprisingly, the quite obviously pregnant woman seated next to me was peppered with the standard questions like, “Is this your first child?” “Do you know the gender?” “Do you have a name picked out?” And so forth. Yet her responses seemed curt and abrasive. She answered straightforwardly but with none of the pleasant tones one would normally expect when the subject turns to babies. She averted her gaze and seemed almost irritated to have been asked. These were just friendly getting-to-know-you questions. Sheesh! What was her problem?

Of course, while engulfed in the joyful environment of a wedding, one’s thoughts are in a uniquely positive place. It only stands to reason that more depressing thoughts aren’t top of mind. I’m slightly disappointed in myself as a mental health professional that it didn’t dawn on me until much later that my table companion’s evasiveness may have been due to much deeper reasons other than social impoliteness. While pregnancy is a happy occasion for many, it isn’t for everyone. I’ve known more than one friend who had the unenviable experience of carrying an unviable fetus to term. I’ve known women who have received ultrasound results that revealed abnormalities incompatible with life. And yet they would have to continue with the pregnancy because abortion wasn’t an option for them. And I’ve even known women who already miscarried but for various reasons had to wait to actually go through the active delivery of what they knew would be a baby they would bury instead of taking home. I don’t know if any of those scenarios were applicable to the woman dining next to me. Maybe she had been raped. Perhaps the father of her child was deceased. There could have been a litany of reasons why talking about her pregnancy—something many would be infectiously gleeful about—invoked a dour demeanor instead. Some things that give many people happiness may actually be a source of pain and sorrow for others.

I often think about this incident when people share news. Instead of immediately jumping to “congratulations!” I’ve made it a habit to instead inquire, “How does that make you feel?” I don’t want to project my own thoughts onto their moment. Similarly, we ought to be mindful of the variety of feelings around the holiday season. For many, this time of year is full of familial gatherings and cheerful activities. But the holidays can conjure negative emotions as well. When someone has lost a loved one, people tend to be a bit more careful. However, there are lots of reasons—some you may never know about—that may cause someone to be despondent during this time of festivities. Maybe there are hidden traumas they’ve endured that are associated with getting together with relatives. Financial hardships may put a damper on their outlook. Whatever the case may be, it’s vital to remember that the same occasions that make one person jubilant have the potential to reopen wounds of heartbreak in another person.

Does that mean we can’t exchange holiday greetings? Should we restrain ourselves from outwardly expressing our own happiness for fear of being insensitive to others’ pain? No one is asking you to blunt your Christmas spirit! It’s fine to be celebratory. But it’s also gracious to reserve room for others to have a different outlook. Tempting though it may be to catch up on everyone’s lives, let’s try to keep the prying questions to a minimum. Asking about relationships or inquiring about when couples will have children are frequent fodder for family conversations. But sometimes these topics dredge up uncomfortable emotions. While we still want to show how interested we are in the lives of our loved ones, it’s crucial to recognize that we may inadvertently cause them pain through our topics of discussion.

During the seasonal celebrations and beyond, we would do well to take our cues from others. A good place to start is by being more observant of what subjects they avoid in conversations. There are plenty of neurodivergent folks who may not have the ability to pick up on those subtleties. However, as far as we are able, taking care to match the tenor of the reactions people display can go a long way toward making our fellowship less cringey for everyone.

If I could go back in time to that wedding reception, I’d nudge my past self to be more aware and more considerate of the other woman’s discomfort. A bit of empathy can do so much to create an environment of peace for someone else. The love of Christ constrains us to show by our actions and our words how we care for one another.

 


Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD, is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and President of the Society for Black Neuropsychology. 

Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found by clicking here.

Photo by mona Masoumi on Unsplash

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