“Are they going to give me a shot?”
“I don’t think so, baby. It’s just strep throat. They’ll give you medicine. The kind you drink.”
“But are you sure? Do they ever give shots for strep throat?”
“Not that I know of. But I can’t say for 100% sure. You know what you do get at the doctor’s? You get stickers. And they put the cuff on your arm, and we find out how tall you are and everything.”
“But are they going to give me a shot?”
It would be so easy just to tell him what what he wants to hear. That “no” would ease his mind and get him off my back. Nevertheless, I refuse to submit. I will answer his question 147 times as truthfully as I can even though a single lie would quiet his fear.
The mind has a way of spinning out of control once it has fixed on a worst-case scenario. Untangling the knot of obsessive thoughts becomes even more difficult if a past hurt has laid down an association between experiences. Rock climbing = broken limb. Making art = ridicule. Professional risk = debt. Love = heartbreak.
Doctor = pain.
Mystery ailments haunted Bug from his first birthday until his fourth. On top of the bombardment of normal childhood immunizations, the poor kid had blood drained from his arm several times a year. Is it any wonder he starts fretting about injections before we even make it through the door? He clings to my leg and urges me to ask about shots. The nurse smiles and gives wheedling reassurance. “Oh, no, big guy, no shots today.” I feel Bug relax his grip and begin to look up. We stride down the hall to the exam room.
Then the doctor comes in and checks his chart. “Oh, we need to take a little blood,” she tells him. Bug contracts into a fist. His eyes flash in my direction. Sighing, I shake my head. “I’m so sorry, buddy.”
This contrition. For what? For his having to feel pain? No, the needle is not the real hurt. My apology is for the falsehoods of grownups. It is for those of us who choose compliance over presence of mind. Maybe the adults of the world are just too rushed to speak the uncertainties. It’s easier to zip on past a hard conversation, scoot the kiddo to the next room, and keep everything humming along. We have a schedule to keep, after all.
Every time this occurs, I see one more brick in Bug’s foundation of trust crumble. While I understand the argument that life is not fair and kids need to learn that the world does not always deliver on its commitments, I do not agree with the premise. What is this need we have to make promises we know we cannot keep? Living with unknowns is a much more powerful skill than living certain that people will lie.
I want my son to learn how to orient his attention in the face of his demons.
No one ever tells us to stop running away from fear…the advice we usually get is to sweeten it up, smooth it over, take a pill, or distract ourselves, but by all means make it go away.
― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Hard Times
The misery of children makes most adults uncomfortable. We want to allay it or make it stop. We want to divert it. We want kids to Be Happy! We want these things for all kinds of complicated reasons, but one of those reasons is that we know the dark power of the mind to spill us down the rabbit hole. Most of us have visited its depths before. And we want children to stay up here in the light.
Wanting it is not anywhere close to teaching it, though.
Positive thinking is not as easy as it seems like it should be. Reducing mindfulness to sugar-coated optimism, which is another form of putting on blinders, ignores the effort involved in re-training the perception to take in a wider selection of what is real. Broadening one’s attention requires practicing with the rigor of a marathon runner. It takes serious muscle to sit still in the face of uncertainty and pain, and building that fortitude requires going through the exercises no matter how the winds howl.
“A further sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us. ”
― Pema Chödrön, The Places that Scare You
“Let’s breathe together, honey,” I tell Bug. I grow very calm and take him in my lap. We sit in the exam room together cuddling close as the doctor checks his vitals. Bug knows that a needle with his name on it is waiting in the lab. His gaze is narrow and his shoulders are hunched. The grinding of the gears inside his panicking brain is almost audible. He is doing what we all do: seeking a way out or around this thing that terrifies him while being unable to resist its pull.
As we listen to the machine beep, I talk in a quiet voice into his scalp. “The doctor is listening to your strong heart,” I tell him. “It is pumping blood all through your body, giving oxygen to your arms and legs, your stomach, your brain.” I touch him here, and here, and here.
The doctor places the stethoscope on Bug’s chest and he pulls in great swallows of air. This is his reserve. He is filling his well. I whisper and keep my hands gentle on his legs. “Everything is working just right to keep you growing and swimming and singing and playing.” Bug does not respond but I can feel his back seeking the comfort of my belly. We will go together to face the blood draw, and he will cry. I will remind him that the hurt is fleeting, and that he is well, and that everything is working exactly as it should. Even the pain. We will talk about this later in the car, about the wonder of nerves and how they send messages to the brain, and how the sting is one way the power living inside his body makes itself known.
Instead of hurling past the uncertainties to find solid ground, I want my son to learn to slow his gait and feel where he is. It is good to sense ourselves suspended above that crevasse. Even children need to learn to stay inside the questions. What holds us? Perhaps just trust. What becomes of us? Perhaps nothing at all.
I only hope that by pausing with my boy here in this place of no answers, I am helping him lay down another pathway in his busy neural network. This one is about orienting to what is right here. Needles, yes, but also breath. Skin and blood, health and a comforting embrace. Pain and fear.