My son fits the mold of your average, happy-go-lucky eight-year-old boy. He plays ball, reads comics strips, plays video games and appreciates a well-placed bathroom joke. He’s usually a pretty quiet kid, he doesn’t complain and is pretty self-reliant, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have things going on his mind.
A week ago, I noticed his little goldfish, Speedy, floating in its little bowl. I broke the news gently about the fish and my boy’s initial shock gave way to some desperate pleas for me to try to resuscitate him (how?) followed by a couple of door-slams (and maybe one or two itty- bitty tears). All in all, I’d say he took it pretty well.
I’m sure he was sad the next day and maybe the day after that, but if he was he did a great job of keeping it to himself (aside from incessantly asking for another fish). For the first time in a while, I thought about his week and what life looked like from his perspective.
There was that flag football game win where he scored a touchdown. That was good. Oh, but how about the morning when I excoriated at him for nearly missing the bus? Definitely not good. I picked him up from school early and took him to Dunkin Donuts (I felt awful about yelling at him). Good. He got a 91 on his spelling quiz. Good. He lost his coat. Bad. He had two tests this week and needs to memorize the four and six times-tables. Hmm…stressful. He won in little league but did not get a hit and dropped a ball in the outfield-frustrating and a bit embarrassing. His little brother got into his stuff and ate his entire Pez stash-infuriating. He still misses his best friend who moved to Texas and never clicked with anyone since-heartbreaking.
Oh, that poor kid.
When parents are woken in the middle of the night by their children’s sobs or meek tapping on the bedroom door after a bad dream, they know what do. During the day, kids can get bogged down by plenty of things too. Are we there for them in those moments to tell them that thing will be ok and give them a hug? It’s tough to do especially when it happens right int he middle of grading papers, changing a load of laundry, making dinner, a phone call or dealing with another kid’s scraped knee.
Rabbi Chiam Kreiswirth-of blessed memory- did a pretty remarkable thing when he used to distribute charity funds to needy families. After giving the donations in the most respectful and discrete way to the adults of the home, he would turn to the children and reach into his pocket and pull out a large candy bar and hand it to them. Rabbi Kreisworth understood that through a child’s eyes, that treat meant more to them than a rent check or a stack of bills.
In other words, when my son brings home a 96 on a test, that’ the equivalent to a fat tax return for me. The way I feel about traffic is how he feels when his favorite team loses.
My son (all kids really) has a lot on his mind. He’s just like me. I could scoff at his problems because to me, real stress is when you need to find a job, real stress is having to wait on some more lab results after an irregular blood test. Alternatively, I can realize that we all have our ups and downs, whoever we are, whatever we are. People don’t have to experience the same things to feel the same pain.
Take that mindset out into the real world, a place where even good people misbehave; they don’t give up their seat on the subway, they curse out loud at the post office if the line is too long, obnoxiously honk the second the light turns green, eat your french fries without asking or help their career at the expense of yours. In these moments you can judge, you can hate but why bother? Everyone comes from somewhere, they have angst, regrets, frustrations and concerns behind what they do and bad choices do not necessarily define who they are. When I keep this in mind, I don’t feel anger, I feel empathy and sometimes pitty.
Everyone has their own personal ecology. Understanding this is one of the first steps to loving unconditionally. Nobody has it better or worse, they just have it different.