Archive | resilience

The Center of the Universe

On Monday, I visited the dentist’s office. Mundane, I know, but bear with me. My dentist’s assistant, Marilyn, is a kind and compassionate woman who greets me with soft and welcoming words. I sat in the big dentist chair and waited for the dentist to come, and it suddenly occurred to me that Marilyn plays a small role in the drama of my life. I come into her office in the midst of my hectic rushing-about life, blowing in through the door like some wind of confusion. The intense energy of me pauses for these few moments on her chair, then moves out through door, corridor, waiting room, main door, and parking lot to continue its rushing about in the world, attempting to do no harm. And to me, that is all Marilyn is: these few moments of respite from rushing about while waiting for the dentist to come, her few kind words, the gentle touch of her hand.

Now this may come as a surprise, but Marilyn too lives a full and whole life. She does not exist in the dentist’s office solely to greet me once or twice a year and assist briefly in my care. To her, patients come and go, playing small roles in the drama of her life, which encompasses her relationships, thoughts, feelings, emotions, confusions, moments of happiness and moments of sadness, her own probable attempt to move through the world while doing no harm. In her life, I play a minor and probably somewhat inconsequential part, a tiny burst of wind and energy, now here, now gone, making room for another patient to come through the door.

Shocking, right?

As a teen, I often imagined us humans as bubbles floating through life. Some bubbles never touch, but some get to stop together for a while and interact so that for at least a few moments the bubbles nearly overlap. I still love walking after dark in the street and imagining how people live behind their curtained (or sometimes open) windows, living their bubble-life.

So yes, I am not the center of the universe. And most likely neither are you, even if you believe you are. It’s our minds that play this trick on us, pretending to be important and one-of-a-kind, filled with illusions about how everyone else is thinking about us, and how they act on purpose to affect us. How everything moves forward in the world to either accommodate us or hinder us.

Some years ago, a friend recommended I read a parenting book which, translated from the Hebrew, was titled Fly Little Bird. One of the points which struck me in the book was the idea that as a child becomes an adolescent, we parents find our place shifts away from being center-stage in our children’s lives. Instead, they are now the main actor, the ones in the limelight, and we are relegated to a smaller role. This, the author implied, was how it should be, the normal and healthy way for our children to grow up. I remember reading this all those years ago and thinking how true this was. When a baby is born, mom and dad are the most important figures in her life. She is totally dependent on them for nearly every need, her safety, health, nourishment, entertainment, warmth, even movement. But as she grows into a toddler, she becomes gradually more independent. She can now eat on her own, move herself from an unpleasant situation on her own, remove a layer of clothing if she’s too hot, or put one on, start using the bathroom independently, and more.

Then, seemingly overnight, the baby turns into a teenager, surprising the heck out of most parents I’ve met. Whatever role we had in their life is turned on its head. Some of the changes I’m finding in my teens are: they don’t want to eat my food, they don’t want to go places with me, they’re not interested in talking to me, they get mad if I don’t do what they ask, they decide what they’re going to wear or what they’re doing, and more: friends, how much water they’re drinking or not, whether to get boba tea 4 or 7 times a week, which movies or series to watch, what music to listen to, whether a full stop at a stop sign is necessary and with what speed to merge on the freeway. Crazy decisions, normal decisions, important decisions, everyday decisions, critical-to-the-continuation-of-life decisions. And I am (mostly) out of the picture, or just peeking in through the window, wondering about the bubble of their life and whether I’ll get to interact with them again after they turn 25.

It’s not necessarily easy or simple to accept that I am not center stage in Marilyn’s life, but it’s ridiculously hard to consider that from now on, while I’ll always play some role in my kids’ life, it is actually my job to set them free and allow them to fly.

Time to move out of the limelight, Sigal.

Curiously, I think some people would not agree with me. Many of us parents identify so deeply with being a parent that we really believe our children belong to us, are a part of us, and that all they do reflects directly on us. Some of us might believe that it is our responsibility and our duty to make sure that our children end up productive members of society, good and upright people, honest, successful and happy. Sounds seductive, doesn’t it? But do we really have this much control over another person’s life?

What I think is the truth sounds a lot less lovely than this, for it affirms the fact that we no longer have control over how our teenagers will turn out (and that perhaps the control we thought we exerted before was also an illusion). These newly-minted human beings are walking their own path, with a lot of minor actors in the drama of their lives of which we are only one or two. We can be present to them and as available as possible if they need us. We can be supportive and loving. We can hope and pray that we have given them a good foundation, that the schools we chose gave a good foundation, and that the choices they make now moving forward will be good ones. But no matter how much we try, we cannot make those choices for them, and definitely not for long. Not in a way that will, in fact, promote their happiness.

And so we let go and trust.

We set them free to be their own center stage and allow them to figure out on their own the fact that they too are not the center of the universe. (A humbling and wonderful insight which I wish on us all).

And we pray that they survive this crazy teenaged time.

So fly little birds. Mamma’s in the nest in case you need to find a safe place to land. But from now on you’re responsible for your own worms and direction in life.

Man, admitting that is hard.

May the Force of love, compassion, patience, and inner fortitude be with us all.


The Case of the Brussels Sprout Soup

On Monday I made Brussels sprout soup. We ate the soup for dinner with mixed results. Dar and I loved it. Uri was ambivalent but finished his bowl. Eden said that the soup looked disgusting. I got her to take a tiny sip by telling her that I’m sure the soup doesn’t taste as bad as she thinks it does. She tasted, spit out, and said only: “It does.”

When we got back home on Tuesday. Uri requested that I heat a bowl of the soup for him. I was busy prepping for dinner and suggested that he get the soup out of the fridge and heat some for himself. He is twelve, after all, and knows how to use the microwave. But Uri wanted me to get him the soup. He nagged, stomped his feet, told me I was a bad mother, complained that he was dying of hunger, and finally stalked off to his clarinet lesson with many an accusatory glance. After the lesson, weighed with guilt, I heated him some soup.

Parenting experts often say that a mother (or father) should not do for the children what the children can do for themselves. These experts would probably be appalled by the amount of indulgence going on at my house. I twist water bottle caps open for the kids, bring them clothes to bed, wake them up in the morning, make them breakfast, lunch and dinner, help with homework, carry Eden’s backpack to school, and I always, always, bring forgotten lunches, projects, homework folders, and jackets to school.

Every once in a while, as in the case of the Brussels sprout soup, I try to stand up for myself, thinking that I might teach the children some independence and self reliance. And as in the case of the Brussels sprout soup, more often than not the result is total failure. On Tuesday, for example, I found myself guilty that the child had his clarinet lesson without food and then guilty for giving in and heating up the soup.

Wendy Mogel, in her fabulous parenting book Blessings of a Skinned Knee, suggests that calling a family meeting and announcing that “things are going to change here from now on” is not the way to implement change. Instead of drastic reorganizations, it might be better to make subtle changes.

In recent months, I taught the kids how to use the microwave, make themselves a bagel with cream cheese, and put clothes in the laundry machine and the dryer. They’ve also began to do homework much more independently than before. True, I have more failures than successes in my attempts to get them to become contributing members of our small family community, but the general direction is good. I am hopeful that by the time they go to college, they will at least have an idea of how to wash their own clothes. Perhaps they’ll eat more than just take-out pizza, and (to quote an amusing example from parenting expert Madeline Levine), they won’t feel that they need to call me in order to find out where their next class is.

Brussels Sprout Soup Recipe

One pound Brussels sprouts, trimmed and with the top leaves removed
One onion, diced
One large potato, cut into cubes
One zucchini, diced
Garlic to taste, sliced
About 4-6 cups of vegetable soup broth, just enough to cover the vegetables

Sauté the onion and garlic till caramelized.
Add Brussels sprout and diced zucchini and pour in vegetable broth till covered.
Let boil and then cook for 20 minutes until the Brussels sprouts are soft.
Mash together till smooth in the blender and return to pot.
Cut the potato to cubes and add to soup, let it boil again and cook for 30 minutes till the potato cubes are soft. Stir every few minutes to make sure the potatoes do not sink and stick to the bottom of the pot.


For more on this topic:
Wendy Mogel’s Myths about Raising Self Reliant Children
Madeline Levine’s Website

Recognizing Resilience

Don’t worry, be happy!

A few days ago, a friend came up to me while we waited for the kids in the schoolyard. He’s been going through a tough time lately, getting a divorce from his wife of many years. We stood for a while as he told me about how hard for him was the separation from the kids, from his wife, and from mutual friends who have been choosing sides. I felt a lot of empathy for him, and, wishing to cheer him up, I told him that divorce is considered one of the most difficult things people go through in life. “After you go through this,” I said, “you’ll be able to handle anything else in life.”

My friend smiled half-heartedly, not consoled, but for me the world paused and (metaphorically) tilted on its axis. My own words struck me with incredible force. Wait a second, I thought, didn’t I also go through divorce?

I do not see myself as an especially resilient person, or rather, perhaps I should say, I am more of a worrier, an anxiety-monger. Some fears, especially late at night, strike me with an unbearable, overwhelming dread: losing the children, Dar, or my parents, sickness, and plane crushes. And one thing is clear to me: if it happens, I will not be able to survive. Many other fears hover around me, and though smaller than death, they do not feel at all small. I am worried about the children’s social and intellectual success at school, my parenting mistakes, the dogs, the chickens, and more.

Worrying about these, I suppose, means that I think there is something I can do about them, solutions, even if I don’t know exactly what those solutions are. And so every once in a while I get very overwhelmed by all this responsibility of keeping everyone healthy and happy and well, and I find myself (though not threatened by any danger to life) living in survival mode and under a lot of unnecessary stress.

But wait a second, I too went through divorce, one of the most difficult things people can go through in life. And according to my own words to my friend, that means I can now handle anything else. So… does surviving divorce really mean that perhaps I do have some resilience, some ability to survive other difficulties in life? In a potential Hunger Game situation, could I find that I would not, after all, be the first to die?

To tell the truth, I’m not entirely excited about my potential for survival because I want to be clear with God: no more of this suffering stuff, ok? I want the kids and Dar to be healthy and happy and well, my parents to grow healthy to a very old age, my friends and my family as well. So perhaps I’m resilient, so what? There’s no need to test if it’s true. Let the sun shine all over us today and everyday. On you too.

The Golden Key of Thoughts

The last few roller coaster months have shown me a gloomy view of my ability to handle difficult situations. I lack resilience, I’ve decided, and I set out to find how this important quality could be learned. Resilience is defined in the dictionary as the “ability to recover readily from illness, depression or adversity.” But resilience allows us to do more than just bounce back to a normal state of functioning: it enables us to use the experience to become stronger. Remember my blog about falling in the hole? I tend to fall in the same hole again and again, and worse, once inside, I sit there and bewail my bad luck rather than work to find the way out.

I was enthralled, therefore, when I encountered words of wisdom in the somewhat bizarre new Alon Hilu novel, As Far As It Gets. The novel tells the story of an uncle and a nephew, Michael and Nadav. Michael inherits $70,000 and leaves Israel to travel around the world, spending the money on giving other people joy. Almost on the same day as his uncle leaves, Nadav enlists in the IDF and is having a hard time fitting in. In one of his letters to Nadav, Michael attempts to cheer him up: “You have freedom, true freedom which is not just another truth but the ultimate truth for all humanity, the freedom to awaken in you — always, in every situation, even in the midst of despair, sorrow and anger, and despite all the pain and suffering you endure — good thoughts and wonderful feelings like love! Hope! Mercy!” And in the next paragraph Michael continues: “Your strength is in your thoughts, in your imagination, and they are with you wherever you go.”

Thoughts, Michael implies, are the source of resilience! They are the rope for escaping the hole! Finding that optimistic, grateful thread of thoughts is the way out of wallowing in a bad situation. I wonder if this is always true. Is the power of my thoughts the ultimate solution to falling in holes? And I think: how amazing! If I could master this golden key, I would no longer need to fear making mistakes, and I could choose to walk in any street I want, whether well-paved or not.

Of course, it is easier said than done. Sometimes when I feel sad I cannot find in myself the energy to create joy out of sorrow or thankfulness out of pain. I make the choice to stay in my trouble hole and roll around in the dirt of my self pity. And even though my first thought is one of disgust at choosing to thus waste my time, I could perhaps give myself permission to feel suffering, at least for a while. Because after that wallowing in the dirt at the bottom of the hole, the outside is so much more beautiful and grand. And remember, I now own the magic key for getting out.

Lying, Protecting, Loving

I’ve been thinking about overprotection a lot while reading Julie Garwood’s The Bride. Jamie and Alec, the main characters, lie to each other all the time. They lie for reasons which could arguably be deemed good: to avoid hurting each other’s feelings or to surprise each other, but mostly they lie to protect each other from bad news. Alec hides from Jamie that her life is in danger. Jamie rushes to prevent war without letting him know. Rather than use their marriage for the support and help it can give, they each treat the other as inadequate and weak. I see their overprotection of each other as a sort of power struggle, an attempt to discover whether there can be trust between them, whether each can safely cede some control.

Surprisingly, though Alec and Jamie lie and their lies are discovered, the only consequence for the lie is greater love and intimacy between them. I don’t particularly like their way of building a life together, and yet somehow, despite the lies and power struggles, Garwood manages to convince me of the truth of Jamie’s and Alec’s love.

I like this quote from Elena Gorokhova: “The rules are simple: they lie to us, we know they’re lying, they know we know they’re lying, but they keep lying to us, and we keep pretending to believe them.” After a while, Alec knows Jamie is up to something and she knows he knows, and they both, in the end, come to depend on the lies as a form of upside-down truth. I guess it makes for an exciting marriage, at least within this book.

In many families I know, it is customary to protect each other from bad news. My parents have hid from my siblings and me a variety of misfortunes, from job loss or illness to smaller matters like the scandal behind the Bible teacher’s marriage or my second grade’s teacher’s disappearance a few months after the beginning of school. I know the secrecy originates from a desire to shield us, to keep us happy or innocent for a little longer, but invariably the news has to be revealed, and, as is the nature of bad news, time rarely lessens its impact.

When I find myself overprotected like that, whether by my parents, my children, friends or Dar, I begin to doubt my own resilience, my ability to recover from difficulties. Did they think I’d be incapable of dealing with this news? “Suffering is,” the Buddha said, and suffering exists everywhere in our world, even for someone like me who attempts to live in a bubble. Perhaps rather than sticking to the impossible task of guarding each other (children, parents, or any other member of our family, really) from pain, the better solution is to nurture resilience. And while I have no idea how to go about doing that, still the first step, I think, would be to stop overprotecting each other from all this imagined harm.

Sigal Tzoore (650) 815-5109