In November, Thanksgiving begins to seep into everyday small talk at work, or in the grocery store, or at the dog park. Someone will inevitably ask, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” and while I can’t blame them for the question, as someone who won’t see my family at all this Thanksgiving, it puts me in a lose-lose situation: I don’t want to lie about my Thanksgiving plans, but I don’t want their sympathy either. God, anything but their sympathy. Anything but “I’m sure your family would love to see you,” or worse, “I’m sorry,” or worse, “Why?”
The subtler their sympathy, the worse I feel. I loathe well-intentioned pity or a thoughtful, practiced response that came from a psychology book or wellness article. I can feel myself being handled, and it makes my skeleton want to cringe out of my body.
To avoid that scenario—one seemingly so minor but, inexplicably, exhausting—I’ve taken to scheduling vacation in late November and leaving the country altogether. I travel with a friend who gets it. Or who doesn’t make a big deal of it, at least. I don’t make a big deal of it, either.
But I know what I’m missing. I’ve had every type of Thanksgiving. I’ve had the Large Family Thanksgiving, with the travel and the games and the adults table and the kids table. I’ve had the Adopt an Orphan Thanksgiving, where I played the role of the orphan adopted by my best friend’s family. I’ve had Friendsgiving, where the orphans banded together for the holiday on our own terms. Most recently, I’ve had the International Thanksgiving, where that friend and I have gone on a safari or walked the Great Wall of China. And I’ve also had Thanksgiving completely alone, where I didn’t even realize it was Thanksgiving until the day was almost over.
There’s a scene in Into the Wild where Christopher McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch, says, “You don’t need to worry about me; I have a college education. I’m not destitute. I’m living like this by choice.” I find myself saying some version of it when faced with someone’s sympathy and my compulsive need to keep them from worrying about me over the holidays. It’s not that I can’t have a family Thanksgiving, if I wanted. It’s that I don’t want to.
There are plenty of reasons why spending Thanksgiving with my family feels like more hassle than it’s worth, including having divorced parents who might passive-aggressively note that I’m choosing one parent over the other. But also, my view of religion is different than my family’s—only they don’t know it. My family doesn’t know that I left the faith I was raised in. They don’t ask, I don’t tell, and any extended interaction risks having another kind of lose-lose scenario, like the time my aunt insisted on visiting me in New York for my grad-school graduation and blamed Hurricane Sandy on homosexuality.
“There’s a lot of wickedness in this city,” she said, sitting across from me in a Broadway diner. “They filled the cup of iniquity and the cup ran over, like Sodom and Gomorrah.”
She shared a point of view that, in any other context, I would be quick to stand up against. But when a family member expresses it, time freezes. If I know their claim is based on how I was raised as a Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t like either of my choices: I could explain why I disagree and suddenly “out” myself as someone who left our faith, or I could sit quietly and feel like a coward for not defending my values.
And on that day, I sat quietly, and my silence made me feel sick and embarrassed. It makes me feel sick and embarrassed whenever I think about it, just as I feel sick and embarrassed now as I tell you about it, and I feel sick and embarrassed knowing that others in my family have said worse things about the “wicked” and the lake of fire, and I feel sick and embarrassed knowing that if they repeated those things, time would freeze again, and I would weigh my options.
Portugal sounds better.
Part of the peace I have with my family comes from allowing them to hold on to their perception of me: a writer in New York City with three degrees, but also a soldier for Christ among the wicked. Leaving that perception to continue undisturbed is what keeps me from my worst fear: worrying them.
It’s their worry that bothers me—knowing that they would fear for me, for my soul, believing that I knew the truth and chose to reject it for the wicked, the very people I was taught to convert. I understand their worry: If I believed that someone had been corrupted by a wicked city, seduced into Satan’s snare, and was headed away from salvation and toward the path of unrighteousness, I would be worried too. Worry is an appropriate response if you hold that belief.
To avoid their worry, every interaction I have with a cousin or an uncle comes with a silent game of “How much do they know?,” where I feel them out in this dance to determine how honest I can be about our childhoods, our faith, and our worldviews. If I hear a cousin curse or talk about a night at a bar, I can relax a bit; if I hear them talk about church, I fall into the role I’m meant to play, the one that I don’t enjoy playing but that I feel I must play to avoid the topics, conversations, and questions that would either leave me feeling sick and embarrassed or leave them feeling worried and afraid.
Even now, I play this game where I check my newsletter subscribers to see if any family members are following me, if they’re reading these very words, and my solace comes from knowing that I’ve been a writer on the internet for many years now, and that somehow they seem to have not read anything yet. My upcoming memoir isn’t going to help much, so I talk with my therapist about whether I can reasonably maintain my lie of omission or get ahead of the fallout with as little damage—as little worry—as possible.
Part of my adult life has always been in preparation for the day when I choose to go back to my family on Thanksgiving and be willing to have those conversations. It’s why I still hold on to many Adventist rules, following the ones that might undercut their perception that anti-Christian beliefs are based in the desire for the spoils of wickedness: I have never gambled in a casino, smoked, or done drugs. I have never drunk alcohol in my life. I don’t drink caffeine. I have never eaten lobster, and generally follow the dietary guidelines set in Leviticus, even though I don’t believe in the Bible or trust its instructions as a meaningful guide to virtue. I follow their rules to try to out-Adventist the Adventists, to have credibility when I say that I’m not an unbeliever to live a wicked life.
If my soul is damned, I want to be close enough to being a good person by their own standards that they struggle with understanding why their God would send me to hell. And when they struggle—if they struggle—I won’t worry for them. I’ll respect them enough to trust them to make their own choices and manage their own emotions. I’ll spare them the burden of my additional grief.
“You don’t need to worry about me; I have a college education. I’m not destitute. I’m living like this by choice.” I can spend Thanksgiving with my family again if I want to. And one day, I will. I’ll trust myself to make the choices that are best for me. But this year, that choice is Portugal. I hear it’s beautiful. So no sympathy, please.
This was a long one, so apologies to my favorite email writer this week, Lawrence, who sent a warning: “I will stick with you as long as you keep me engaged. I am a tough customer. You will need to keep selling me in each newsletter … I really enjoy the Atlantic articles TO A POINT. I find, more often than not, they simply run on too long. Perhaps it is an editing issue; perhaps I am a poor audience. All I can tell you is many many Atlantic articles need to be shortened. By at least 25-35% IMHO. WaPo is generally good.”
I worked at Taco Bell as a teenager, Lawrence. Subscribers who cite The Washington Post don’t worry me—I got you.
This week’s giveaway is one of the most popular novels last year, Luster, because I could tell Raven Leilani was raised as a Seventh-day Adventist while I was reading it, and I looked it up and I was right, and I can’t explain how it felt to find another Seventh-day Adventist–raised writer. If you’re interested, send me a short email saying whether you know who Piccolo is, and I’ll send the book to the first person who hits my inbox. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find me on Twitter @JordanMCalhoun. And if you’re reading Humans Being for the first time: You should subscribe. The paywall goes up next week, on December 1, so you’ll have to be a subscriber of The Atlantic, and I hope you stick around—this is only gonna get better.
Until then, 62 days until Saga returns.