Monday, March 20, 2017

Reflecting on 'The Love That Matters' by Charles Featherstone (2) Alone

Being the father of a young daughter, there's a lot about Charles' childhood years that stuck with me:
“I did tell my parents once, not long after it started.  It was at dinner, we were sitting around the table, and I remember my father’s response; “People are going to tease you.  You just need to learn to deal with it.”  Not helpful.  My mother’s advice was even worse; she told me I needed to understand that the people who teased me probably had hard lives at home.  Why that was supposed to explain their teasing me I wasn’t sure.  But I quickly determined that my parents could not be trusted.  I may have mentioned the problems a time or two, but I never really talked to them about this again.  In fact, no adult could be trusted.  No one in a position of power and authority could be trusted.  Because they didn’t want to know.  Or because if they knew, they didn’t care.  And they certainly weren’t going to do anything to help.  I was alone.  I was on my own.  This much was clear.”   -p32
“There were a lot of mornings when I would wake up wondering, “Why?  Why do I bother going through all this?  What if this is all there is?  What’s the point of going on?”  Because at the age of ten, I was afraid, truly afraid, that this life of loneliness and fear, and having to deal with abuse on all sides – from kids and adults alike, at home and at school – was all there was ever going to be.  So what was the point of going on?  If this was all life was going to hand me, there was no point.  No point at all.   -p35
“I was simply not wanted by the world in which I lived, by the people who lived in and ran that world.”   -p38
"They sometimes spoke nice words, words of caring and concern - "I Am Lovable and Capable!" - but they never meant it.  Ever.    -p38

My wife, daughter and I were at a birthday party for a 7 year old boy a short while ago, the son of some close friends of ours.  Lots of boys and girls, some still in diapers, running around yelling, screaming and farting.  It was loud and it smelled pretty bad just about everywhere.  It seemed like there were about 50 kids, but in reality there were more like 15. 

Like a lot of 7 year old boys, the birthday boy is into Star Wars.  He’s not just into Star Wars toys books.  He’s into Star Wars in a way that he wants to be IN Star wars.  He doesn’t just want toys, he wants the whole costume.  So we got him a Darth Vader costume – jumpsuit, cape, helmet – the whole deal.  He took a quick break from opening his presents, went in his room to put on the costume, and came back out and finished opening his presents.

Putting on the costume, a little boy simply HAS to play the part of a servant of the Dark Side.  The commanding walk and intimidating presence, the trademark breathing.  The power.  Naturally, sides are going to be chosen and leading to some sort of fun conflict.  In this case, Darth Vader was putting kids in "jail".  Jail was a bedroom with the lights out.

Being one of the smaller (and more persuadable) toddlers, my daughter was thrown into "jail".  Put into a dark room, closed door, no lights.  By Darth Vader.  For the fun of the party.

So she is in the room crying desperately.  My wife and I thought we heard crying, but there were lots of kids running around and everyone seemed to be having a good time.  With all of the noise at the party, we just didn't think much of it.  Crying came and went.  We certainly didn't think the cries belonged to our daughter.

We don't know how long she was in there.  Though it probably felt like an eternity to her, it wasn't more than a few minutes.  Other people heard her crying as they walked by the door of the "jail".  They opened the door and she came running out.  These folks brought her to us, and we picked her up and comforted her in her tears.  You know the type - the hard tears where the person gasps for breath.

She calmed down fairly quickly.  The birthday boy's dad chastised him for what he did, he apologized, my daughter and Darth Vader made their peace, and things mostly went back to the way that they were.  But my daughter still talks about this.  She hasn't forgotten.

Pretty anti-climactic.  So why do I bring this up?  

I don't mean to compare a bit of out-of-control birthday party fun in a healthy environment with friends to Charles' hellish experiences growing up.  They're decidedly not the same thing.  But I just wonder, what would it have done to my daughter if she had been in that room for 15 minutes?  30 minutes?  But what if she'd been locked in the dark and nobody cared?  In the midst of having a good time, what if nobody had really wanted to hear or respond to her cries?  Her parents, the ones tasked with safety (and not just her physical safety) being either aloof or indifferent?  Principled to the point of looking the other way?  And the same with everybody else....a sort of survival of the fittest social environment?

Would she start to lose faith in people?  Could it have been the sort of moment in which a bit of innocence is lost, the moment where a child realizes that the world is not an entirely safe place?  That she might just be on her own?  That her pain was a sort of inconvenience to the ethos of the party?  No doubt moments of loneliness and pain come to all kids, but what do parents do when they come?  She was able to find comfort, but what if there wasn't any to be found?

What if, in her trauma, we had just calmly explained that "this is the way birthday parties are"?

Now remove the particularities, and imaginatively transpose these metaphors to the constant existence of a 10 year old boy.

As the father of a 3.5 year old, the sort of constant fear that characterized Charles' elementary school years breaks my heart.

I recognize that I can’t protect my daughter from everything.  Up to a point, I can’t protect her from struggling because difficult situations may emerge from the best of environments and intentions.  My wife and I have made conscious decisions to let her interactions with other kids play out, up to a point.  We want her to learn to have a humble self-confidence, to stick up for herself, to learn to work through difficult situations with other kids.  

When kids are mean (nearly always unintentionally at her young age), we often tell her that we want her to be nice even to the people that are mean to her.  A "treat people as you want to be treated" Golden Rule sort of thing.  I think it's a good thing to strive for, this proactive growing of the internal capacity for love and good will towards others.

But I think about what Charles needed as a child.  First and foremost, he didn't need practical relationship advice, solid and time tested principles, reality checks on the way things are, lessons in empathy, etc.  He simply needed to matter to someone.  To be known and heard.

As a parent, I really need to remember that.  I'd like to think that I always will.  Hearing Charles' story, however, I cringe at my capacity to offer false comfort.  Things are fairly easy now from an interpersonal standpoint because usually her little issues with other kids are accidents.  She's 3.5 years old.  She has an innocence about her, a pure and joyous way of seeing the world.  I can tell her that sometimes kids just play rough or mean, or that she should try to remember that other kids sometimes have things going on that make them act out a little bit.  It is easy to do this because she is so young.  It is easy because the kids she hangs around are generally good kids.  But it will not always be so easy.

My role as a dad cannot be reduced to abstract "ideals", words of wisdom that float above the fray of actual existence.  The pain or loneliness experienced in the life of an actual flesh and blood person cannot be reduced or dismissed as an occasion to tout principles or learning opportunities.  For a child - for my daughter - to be loved is to know that she matters, in her joys and successes but particularly in her pain, her perceived insufficiency, her failures, loneliness, rejection and heartache.  There's no substitute for that, no program or "life-lesson" that can render unnecessary or fundamental that innate need of value and worth.

You know what?  I don't think we ever really outgrow that need.


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