While the holidays are stressful for everyone (even good stress is stress), being around relatives whose religion you’ve left can be uniquely challenging.
How does a former Laestadian cope?
Drawing on my own experience and others, I've come up with some tips that may be helpful. Mileage will vary, of course. Feel free to disagree and add your ideas in the comments.
1. Consider Your Options
You have no obligation to be with relatives over the holidays. If you left the faith recently, opting out of family holiday may be the best option, as it takes strength to stay unruffled among people who consider you lost (or wicked, or crazy). They haven’t had time to get used to the idea that you are gone, and may still harbor hopes that you'll return with a well-timed rebuke. Nurture yourself instead. Coddle your emerging identity until you feel settled, and can actually look forward to seeing them.
If you want to be around some relatives and not others, or go to one gathering and not another, it's your choice. Don’t feel bullied into being with people who mistreat you. Honor your instincts; they are there to guide you.
Honor your instincts; they are there to guide you.
On the fence? You might consider travel, or celebrating at a friend’s house, or volunteering with a service organization. After leaving the church, I spent a few holidays alone and then, a few with friends, a valuable lesson in diversity. If you're like me and felt a bit cheated by the somber holidays of the church, embrace your freedom to deck a tree, listen to schmaltzy carols, attend the ballet, go to a candlelight service, or just eat Thai food and watch a movie.
However, consider that even if your family disapproves of your leaving, they haven't lost their love for you. Now that you are no longer in church on Sundays, they may truly long for the chance to be with you. My favorite thing about the holidays as a little girl was when my big sister came home. The happiness and lessons I would have missed out on, if she had stayed away!
If enduring a little discomfort lets you lavish love on younger siblings, or see a relative from out of state, that may tip the balance for you. Only you can decide.
2. Set Limits
If you decide to see your relatives, set a time limit and make a back-up plan, in case you want to leave early. I've found that two hours is a good limit for my husband and kids, who (not being as familiar with Laestadianish), get tired thinking of small talk that won’t offend. If going solo, a couple of days is perfect for me. It's okay to be begged to stay, and it's okay to say, sorry, I can't.
You may want to set a limit on how much to spend on travel and gifts. The reciprocity that Laestadian families regularly practice, trading phone calls, texts, visits, photos, cards, gifts, and favors, often stops abruptly for those who leave the church. That will sting, but don’t wreck your sanity trying to figure it out or fix it. Just remember that they are protecting themselves more than punishing you.
Just remember that they are protecting themselves more than punishing you.
Give only when you can do it with a full, free heart, with no expectations of return, and refuse to become a martyr. The Laestadian training in self-denial is unlearned this way (slowly, alas, I'm still working on it).
3. Let Go
There is a Buddhist saying that hope and fear are two sides to the same coin, and both cause suffering. Instead of fearing the worst or hoping for the best, shoot for equanimity. Then come what may, you'll be okay.
If you have not “come out” yet as a nonbeliever, the holidays may present the opportunity. There is no right time or way. Only you can know when it feels both safe and worthwhile. Perhaps you will feel compelled to correct someone who mistakes you for a fellow believer or asserts as universal a personal truth, or condemns non-Laestadians to everlasting hell.
Some people are direct in self-outing; others less so. Some never come out. Some decide to forgo or alter the traditional greeting, some say "I no longer believe" or "I don't go to your church anymore” or “I would rather not talk about it” or any number of things. One friend, in revealing his heart, asked a missionary simply, "Do you think Gandhi is in hell?"
Unless you are being personally attacked, don't take Laestadian-talk personally.
Stay grounded. Unless you are being personally attacked, don't take Laestadian-talk personally. Resist what we were taught as Laestadians: to judge. Everything.
Try to relax in the knowledge that there is so much more to a person than ideas, and in any case, you are not responsible for theirs. With patience and creativity, you will find things to talk and laugh about.
If you find yourself trapped in a gossip session, find the nearest escape route: "Sorry, I have to pee" is a common one. So is "I'd rather not talk about that." In a religion with rigid standards for conduct and the attendant hypocrisy, gossip is valuable currency. Coated with concern for those being discussed, it is embarrassingly easy to slip into. Resist! Indulging in gossip is like holding onto anger: it's as if you're drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
4. Don’t Try to Fix Them
Sharing our views without judging those of others takes a level head and practice. We represent by our very presence, as an "ex," a rejection of Laestadianism. We don't need to rub it in. We can be kind. It would be nice if our loved ones affirmed our reality, or felt safe enough to confide their own doubts, but it isn't necessary.
Martha Beck says: “Don’t violate your own code of values and ethics, but don't waste energy trying to make other people violate theirs. If soul-searching has shown you that your mother's opinions are wrong for you—as are your grandfather's bigotry, your sister's new religion, and your cousin's alcoholism—hold that truth in your heart, whether or not your family members validate it. Feel what you feel, know what you know, and set your relatives free to do the same."
Feel what you feel, know what you know, and set your relatives free to do the same.
Resist the urge to argue. If you can't keep yourself from arguing, excuse yourself. This is where your back-up plan comes in handy.
Be true to yourself. Be loving.
This is your responsibility and privilege as a member of your family, which you will always be, even if you are never invited back. Even if you lose them all tonight in a flash flood. Being true and being loving are actions you will never regret.
5. Make Peace
Whatever our beliefs, we can define the season so it creates peace in us and in those we encounter. We are wonderfully fortunate, as 21st century Americans, to have a choice in how to celebrate, when countless billions throughout history have not, and many still, around the world, are bound by custom and law.
With so much to experience and be thankful for, the dumbest thing would be to sit at home and wallow in self-pity (but I'll confess, I've done that, too).
So let's feed someone. Sing. Be of use. Visit family or not.
Make peace in unlikely places, because we can.