On Staying Calm

Eric and I decided that we should all go for a walk downtown on Christmas day to see a light display near City Hall. We were all, admittedly, pretty tired after the two days of festivities, but we wanted to walk to help digest our big lunch, and also to get some much-needed exercise. F was annoyed with us for making him go, and brooded about it throughout the 25-minute walk, reminding me periodically of his frustration by walking into me ever so slightly, and getting extra frustrated when M walked too slowly in front of him.

We arrived at our destination only to find the light display not illuminated. Eric checked online to see when it would be turned on, only to discover that, for some reason, it wouldn’t be that day. So I directed us to the closest tree that was lit up (because it was not part of the display), which required a step up onto grass. F didn’t see the step in the semi-darkness, and tripped over it and fell onto the muddy lawn, covering the outside of his right pant leg, as well as his sleeves and hands, in dirt. Once he stood up he started to cry, and despite my frustration at his mood and now this clumsiness and upset (as well as the unlit display), I put my arm around him and didn’t say anything. This was very hard for me to do.

What I had wanted to say was, “See, you were so grumpy about going for this walk that you didn’t see the step, and now you’ve fallen and gotten wet and dirty, and if you had just made the best of it instead and not ruined it for the rest of us…”. Basically, my first reaction was that F had deserved to fall because he let himself stay in a bad mood and annoy everyone else.

But as much as I wanted to berate him, I kept my mouth shut and just held him. While doing that I reminded myself that getting angry at someone who is already upset not only doesn’t help, but makes the upset person feel much worse about what happened to him and creates justified resentment towards me, undermining the trust in our relationship. And then the anger came back, and then flipped back to compassion (lots of thinking in only a few moments!), and I ultimately resolved to simply take care of the situation by pulling out the wipes from my backpack and cleaning off F’s hands. We continued our walk, and though F was sullen the rest of the time and wanted to be left alone, he had gotten only a little wet and it was mild outside, so we got to see other beautiful light displays before returning home.

In hindsight, it has occurred to me how part of my immediate thought when F fell was that he “deserved” to trip and fall may very well be rooted in my former religious beliefs (I was raised Lutheran). There is so much talk in Christianity about human unworthiness, and how people deserve all the bad that comes their way as punishment for their own “wrong” thinking and action (or simply by being born “in sin”). I have never put this specific childhood conditioning into context like this before, or seen how it might contribute to my beliefs about what people do and do not “deserve”. I could certainly consider it as another avenue through which some of my harmful thinking has come, in any case.

Deciding what someone deserves is also a way to lay blame as a means to coping with our own distressing feelings. I was angry at F for being so disagreeable and not finding a way to feel better, and when he fell and started crying, my anger peaked enough for me to think “this is what he gets for behaving so miserably”. I was essentially mad at him for not behaving the way I wanted him to (despite his tiredness and disinterest in the walk). Of course we have a history, and that certainly contributed to my thoughts about what he does and doesn’t deserve, but it didn’t make me right in that moment, or in any other moment before that.

All in all, I’m really glad I said nothing and acted towards improving the situation, even by just holding my boy. Hopefully it will be easier the next time I find myself feeling like punishment is warranted.

You can find different and interesting unschooling discussions about the concept of “deserving” here and here.

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