Why I Cherish Those Holiday Squabbles Over Politics That so Many Families Disdain

Ceasing to worry about things beyond one’s control may very well be a stepping stone to happiness—yet absurdly arguing about such things with the ones you love can be a great way to laugh at your fate all the same. 

“He who laughs at himself never runs out of things to laugh at.”

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

- Epictetus

Fresh off another birthday, I can’t help but admit I’m becoming more like my father as he becomes more like his father—and we are powerless to stop it. 

Some qualities I welcome; others I try to endure stoically (though I seriously doubt that the mighty stoic, Epictetus, ever had to “cease worrying” about getting fatter by the day). Just goes to show that ancient wisdom can apply to the most weighty of modern problems.

That said, one trait I most look forward to inheriting from Granddaddy and Dad is a peculiar psychosomatic epiphenomenon called — well, I’m not quite sure what to call it. You could call it “premature laughter” or possibly “early onset chuckles” or maybe even a case of “irritable guffaw syndrome.” I believe the term my family settled upon years ago is “tickled with yourself.”

And that was Grandaddy. He was always tickled with himself. 

He had long been a storyteller and practical joker, but the older he became, the more immature his laughter would arrive. The later his hour grew, the earlier he would start chortling to himself. So it went, inevitably.

In the autumn of his life, Granddaddy would crack up halfway through a joke in anticipation of a punchline he had yet to deliver. In the winter of his life, he couldn’t even pretend to begin a story without first laughing to himself and then at himself for laughing. Usually, the stories that made him giggle the most had something to do with fond memories of when his kids and grandkids were young.

But laughing to and at himself wasn’t the only way Granddaddy got his kicks. He also loved to mess with my Dad, especially when it came to politics. 

At many a family gathering, those two—father and son—would sit on the back porch and argue incessantly over the politics of the day. They were never really politically active people, more spectators of the political news cycle. Granddaddy would watch CNN. Dad would watch Fox News. Accordingly, they would come armed to the teeth with their respective talking points. 

This was no gentleman’s debate, mind you. Sparks would fly. Scurrilous accusations would be raised. Voices would rise to a growl, then a shout. Selective facts were wielded with wild abandon. Objections and interruptions were made in the staunchest of terms. No quarter given. No holds barred. 

It was truly partisan B.S. at its absolute best. 

Of course, all the women in the family would leave the scene shaking their heads. The other men at the table would carry on the conversation elsewhere until the fray subsided. Then, nine times out ten, the brouhaha would end with Dad storming off in a huff and puff, accentuated by tobacco smoke swirling in mid-air. 

Initially, I found this hullabaloo of a family ritual completely absurd. I remember interrupting once to ask if either of them secretly held some elective office I didn’t know about or had any power whatsoever to change much of anything they were discussing. They just looked at me like I was the one who didn’t get it. 

On a certain level, watching their debates is when I first began to learn most Americans (yes, even voters) are largely powerless spectators when it comes to their nation’s politics—just as powerless as Alabama and Auburn football fans are to affect the outcome of the Iron Bowl. Yet, we keep on arguing on how to solve the world’s problems. Grandaddy and Dad certainly kept on arguing.

Again, when I was younger, I found all of this completely absurd. A waste of time. A bunch of prepackaged partisan B.S. Now as I grow older, again, I find myself powerless against becoming more like my father and his father. 

Indeed, ceasing to worry about things beyond one’s control may very well be a stepping stone to happiness—yet absurdly arguing about such things with the ones you love can be a great way to laugh at your fate all the same. 

You see, the more I watched my father and his father fight over things beyond their control, the more I started to notice something. 

Each time Dad would storm off, Granddaddy would have a twinkle in his eye and, I swear, a chuckle in his heart. They fought over the things they couldn’t control because it helped them cherish what they could. Without fail, even after my Dad would storm off over some pointless political fight, he would always come back to an open seat at the table.

So here’s to fathers and sons. Here’s to all the family holiday fights over politics and all other manner of things largely beyond our power or control. Just remember to laugh at yourself, especially when chuckling at old memories gets beyond your control. 

Who knows, one day being “tickled with yourself” might be a surviving grandson’s favorite memory of you—as well as the quality he most looks forward to inheriting—even if he is powerless to stop it.

This 1819 article was republished with permission.