Sunday, February 12, 2012

Fear By Proxy

". . . imagine a stone as big a great house; it hangs and you are under it; if it falls on you, on your head, will it hurt you?"

"A stone as big as a house? Of course it would be fearful."

"I speak not of fear. Will it hurt?"

"A stone as big as a mountain, weighing millions of tons? Of course it wouldn't hurt."

"But really stand there and while it hangs you will fear very much that it will hurt. The most learned man, the greatest doctor, all, all will be very much frightened. Everyone will know that it won't hurt, and everyone will be afraid that it will hurt."

~Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Possessed 

Parents spend a lot of energy worrying about pain. I know I do, although as my daughter has grown, my concerns have shifted more toward the emotional than physical. When she was little and pricked her finger, I would fuss over her, joining her in her pain. But now that she's a young woman my responses are less empathetic, more sympathetic, eliciting perhaps a grimace and a "That must have hurt" before returning my attentions to my own concerns. Somehow, I suppose, with all the experience she now has with minor pinches and scrapes it doesn't seem like she needs me to travel through the pain with her, if she ever did. I tend these days to spend more of my time under the "stone as big as a great house" anticipating by proxy the pain of rejection, of cruel words, of dreams being dashed.

I love this Dostoyevsky thought experiment because it makes very clear that most of us, most of the time, no matter how well educated, are even more afraid of pain than death. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I assume I'm not alone in having more or less successfully wrestled the horrific thought of my own child's death into a back closet of my mind where it sits like disaster emergency supplies, necessary, occasionally checked on, but with the expectation of never having to open them. That's a harder thing to do with pain, or more precisely, the fear of pain.

A certain amount of this fear is adaptive. Not enough and we take crazy risks, too much and we become paralyzed. But none of us can avoid pain, and indeed there are philosophers who assert that we all experience an equal share throughout our lives no matter how we live. In any event, there is no denying that pain is one of the universal truths about life. The difference is in how we anticipate it and how we recover from it.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could always be rational about pain; we could look at the wasp buzzing over our food and understand that the pain from its stinger would not be so bad after all, a prick really, perhaps raising a round, red welt. Instead we leap from the table, swinging our napkins, knocking over glassware, even the bravest among us dodging our entire giant bodies in fear of this tiny, harmless insect that really has no intention at all of stinging anything. It's fear that does it; anticipation of pain.

And take a look at it from a child's perspective, especially one who has never experienced a sting. We might even be laughing as we do it (in fact, more often than not we are), but this is a table full of big, strong adults fleeing a wasp. How fearsome that must make this wasp to a child. How great that pain must be. Often in these circumstances, the adults are laughing while the children's faces are creased in worry.

I know this is an extreme example, a lot of us have genuine phobias about stinging insects (no doubt sourced in large measure from scenes like the one I've described) and do a much better job of hiding our knee-jerk fears behind a curtain of rational calmness in other circumstances. But it's a good thing as parents to constantly examine our knee-jerk fears, to look at them in moments of repose for the truth. We can all, if we let our imaginations go, come up with a catastrophic possibility for everything, but that's a dangerous, damaging exercise for both you and your child. More productive is to be honest about your fear. Where does it genuinely touch reality? Does the intensity of my fear match the actual pain or is my heart irrationally racing over my child who is about to learn the universal lesson of touching the wrong end of a thumb tack?

Pain is inevitable, and in fact good, in that it is one of nature's great teachers. Through diligence and care, I'm sure we can avoid some of it, but we'll never even come close to eliminating it. And fear is often the worst part of pain; it intensifies it, it turns it into a phobia.

There is no magic way to turn off our fears, I'm afraid, especially when it comes to our children. But we can become aware of them, to talk about them, to examine them in the bright light of day. As parents, perhaps the hardest thing is to learn to feel our fears, to put them on our shoulders, and yet still allow our children to live their lives, which includes, magnificently, both love and pain. The alternative is to keep them in their rooms, quietly, alone, where they learn nothing.

I'm still afraid for the pain my teenager might experience each time she goes out into the world; catches the bus to visit a friend, heads downtown to go shopping, leaves for an afternoon at the beach. The world is full of small things she could choke on, pointy bits upon which she could be cut, and pavement upon which she could fall. Even as I write that sentence, I see the silliness of the fears I once had for my child and wonder when the fears I have now will look just as silly.

As parents, our fear of pain is complicated by the fact that it is a fear by proxy. We see our innocent toddler reaching for the rose. We feel a flash of fear on behalf of our child, who will know the pain, but not the fear, at least not this time. And even once your child has learned the truth about thorns, he will never fear them as much as you did, until he has a child of his own.

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Shelly Gourlay said...

You are brilliant

Marla McLean, Atelierista said...

You know, the hardest part about being a parent is watching your child in emotional pain. Knowing you are unable to fix it. Able to only be an ear, or tell a story from your own life experiences, or say I love you, or even harder, ask, Are you thinking of hurting yourself or doing something destructive? It is so important to teach children that yes, life is often painful. It is how we meet the pain and learn to live with it or let it be that defines us as humans. We are some resilient creatures at times, and so fragile at other times. Thanks for this very important and human post Tom.

Shereen said...

This is beautiful.

Dana Gorman, Playfully Learning said...

Tom, I would love your opinion and advice on the issue raised in my latest blog post.
I wasn't sure the best way to contact you, I have been looking for an email address. Hope this works.
Thank you.

50sMom said...

Thanks Tom. This reminds me of an interview I heard on CBC last week for a man who has carried out interviews with American seniors to gain insight into how to lead a happier life. He said that most people's biggest regret was wasting so much time worrying about things that never happened. It is called the Legacy Project. Hmm it'd be interesting to ask similar questions from preschoolers and compare.

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