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Lithium Quarantining with family is a never-ending Thanksgiving dinner

Aug. 7, 2020
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For Father’s Day last year, I bought my dad Ben Shapiro’s first book, The Right Side of History. I never would have bought it on my own as someone who disagrees with the man on many issues, but I did it knowing that my dad would love it being the avid Shapiro fan that he is. Whether it be for Shapiro’s paper The Daily Wire or his “epic” debates, my dad praises him to no end. I remember once telling my dad about how Shapiro was set to speak at my university and the controversy that surrounded the proposed event. He immediately asked if attendees would get to meet Shapiro (they wouldn’t) and said if so, he’d put down the money to book a flight. Truthfully, I was hurt seeing that it would take Ben Shapiro coming to campus for my dad to even consider visiting me and that even then, I seemed to be an afterthought. But even after asking my dad not to play his podcast around me when I came home that summer, I picked the book up off the shelf, bought it, and even paid extra for it to be gift-wrapped.

Buying Shapiro’s book was a peace offering of sorts to my dad that summer, a season many know as the time when college students leave their college-given freedom for their usually less-than-tolerant homes. Such a time can be reminiscent of a Thanksgiving dinner shared with ignorant family members, particularly when politics snakes its way into conversation—except it happens every night for three months. Gifting that book to my dad was my way of quietly saying “you and I don’t agree, but I still love you” or “if I can buy you this book, you can leave me alone about my politics.” I’m not trying to make it out to be some noble act, but rather a thoughtful gesture. Neither sentiment made its way into the card but I like to think that it was understood. 

Now, under quarantine, the politically motivated, Thanksgiving-like tension in my home doesn’t seem to have an expiration date. Whenever my father and I cross paths, it feels like I’m tip-toeing through a minefield. The home I grew up in now feels like a pressure cooker where any misstep could result in a contained explosion within the walls to which we’re confined. I could be sitting at the counter minding my own business one minute and find myself debating Trump with my dad the next. Defending my position on the opposite side of the political spectrum is exhausting, and meeting in the middle seems hopeless. So I don’t bother trying anymore. I don’t share anything that I like with him—television, movies, books, or articles—in fear that it’ll spark another argument or awkward silence, knowing that both are inescapable in a time when we’re not allowed to leave the house. 

Being on lockdown and navigating these new challenges has made me question the validity of me and my dad’s relationship. My dad is one of the smartest, most caring and loving people that I know, and I’m so grateful to have him in my life. That’s a given. He’s my number-one supporter in life, encouraging me even when I fail. But this doesn’t make him exempt from hurting me, consciously or not. While quarantine is, in theory, a great opportunity for families to grow closer in the newfound time they have to spend together, this doesn’t seem to be the case in a politically-split household. If anything, quarantine has deepened the rift between me and my dad and reminded us that our relationship doesn’t exist beyond surface-level topics. I can tell my dad how my day went but not necessarily the people I hung out with or where I went. I can tell him I’m reading a book but not about its contents when he asks about them. I can tell him I wrote an article like this one but not what it’s about. 

It’s a hard thing to accept, but adapting is necessary to survive. So instead of mourning such a discovery that feels like a loss, I adapt. Let me be clear—I respect anyone’s use of our right to free speech, even people like my dad, Shapiro, or Trump. But that doesn’t mean I have to listen to them, the same way they don’t have to listen to me. So I avoid talking about politics and religion in our conversations, knowing ahead of time it’ll only create more tension that can be avoided; I think it’s trained my dad to do the same. I ask my dad not to link me to articles written by Shapiro or anyone from the alt-right to set boundaries for myself. In return, I don’t send him articles from CNN or whatever other outlet he’d deem “leftist.” Many would claim that this is telling of my intolerance of alternative points of view, but I consider it knowing myself and my boundaries. I don’t need to be converted by a conservative to engage with their ideas, I do so on my own time in a way that isn’t laborious for me. It’s when these conversations and debates are constantly forced onto me that it becomes harmful, because they sour the air in my own home.

So I don’t fly anywhere near the sun and only prompt my dad using a list I keep in my head under “Safe Topics of Conversation.” Some of the items include work, recipes we should try, new video games we’re excited about, superhero movies, and debating which fast-food restaurant has the best fries. These things bring the both of us joy and nothing else, something that can be hard to come by these days, and I’m appreciative of the fact that we’re capable of finding it in each other.

I believe that we—and by we, I mean me and college students and young people quarantining with politically-opposite families—do this willingly, albeit while gritting our teeth. The result is a deafening silence between us and them, bred both from respect and fear. Respect as in a mutual understanding that we’re different but allowed to be, and fear that if we challenge such an agreement our relationship will deteriorate. So we bite our tongues and only release them for small talk on the rare occasion that we leave our rooms. We smile close-mouthed at our parents in the mornings and afternoons. We take the jackets off our books so we can lie about their contents if asked about them.

I tell myself that no matter how challenging, such sacrifice is made out of love. After all, despite knowing the perils of Thanksgiving dinners, we still go every year for the sake of our families. I wouldn’t silence myself for the happiness of another person like my dad if I didn’t love him. But I also love myself enough to still honor my boundaries for my own mental health under a quarantine that may never end.

So I’ll buy my dad Shapiro’s new book when it comes out this year and hand it to him with a smile because I truly want to. Because I love him and because I love me.

Illustration by Christina Animashaun for Vox