Winter is looming. Our first snow is in the forecast for next week and our luxuriously warm November dissolved into a big puddle of cold rain today. I’m coming to treasure winter more than I ever have because it means quiet oatmeal with a candle as the sun comes up and easy early bedtimes after dinner because it’s already gone down. Winter is a time for doing less. And for soup. And, at the start anyway, for anticipating Christmas. (You’ve put in a request for a pink tape measure.)
These days are full of racing around the house playing emergency vehicles with Jacob, yanking on Joshua’s arms with big angsty love, taking walks down the sidewalk with your baby (and coming to my house for a “visit” at regular intervals along the way), and getting waist-deep in the river of your imagination, usually led by Jacob. We like to stay home all day when we have the chance, and sometimes I play with you but usually I don’t, because you do just fine by yourself. But I watch you and I grin and laugh and wonder, and I wish I were as good at it as you are. The days are full of reading poems under blankets and reciting the ones about mud and the bothersome baby brother at random moments throughout the day (with giggles). They are full of big nasty spats with Jacob over tiny things and constant reminders that you must always use a gracious voice. They’re full of the impossibly annoying moments when you decide to yell to me across the house and you can’t take the hint of my returned silence that you should STOP YELLING.
This month you celebrated Halloween for the first time (you were a princess) and attended your first birthday party (the theme was princesses). You showed me the deep compassion and tenderness you are capable of when I broke my toe one morning in the library. And you showed me the devious abstractions you are capable of when you began saying “I’m sick” every time Jacob got a dose of medicine. (Work on your subtlety.)
Nothing terribly profound has happened in your little world this month, aside from the second stomach bug in a row a couple weeks ago, dropped like a bomb right into the middle of Daddy’s and my anniversary stay-at-home date. Seven years to the day since we’d made it official as college students – since we’d finally gotten honest with each other about how impossibly terrible we’d become at living without each other. I feel like I need a nap when I think about how far these seven years have launched us – how deeply, irrevocably, exhaustingly into adulthood we’ve gotten.
You are actually genuinely healthy right now, and actually I think that counts as profound because it’s the first time in weeks, maybe months. I reached a point this month where when people asked how things were going I explained that I was praying for Jesus to be our healer. Forget prayer for patience and strength and comfort in sickness, forget endurance or the ability to see God’s hand. In a quiet moment with some Christian sisters as we shared our most heartfelt needs mine was really basic, and I choked it out past tears: “I just really want my family to be healthy for a little while.” We’re not quite there: Jacob’s on steroid inhalers for wheezing and up freaking out over a severe cough at least twice each night right now. But you are healthy, so (as I’ve been saying a lot lately) I’m calling it a win.
You’ve been doing your fair share of freaking out too these days, though thankfully it hasn’t usually been in the middle of the night. After so many nightmares in the last year you are rarely waking to scream and scramble up the stairs. Only once lately has this happened, and I ran down to where you were crying in your bed and snuggled you. For the first time ever I heard the story. Nothing gruesome or tragic. No hints at your future in therapy because of the traumas of your toddlerhood. Nope, this nightmare (and I wonder how many others before it) was about bees. Just bees. I always ask if you want to tell me the story of your dream and you always bury your head in me and decline. But this time you sobbed it out so I squeezed you tight and we shook out your blankets just to make sure all the bees were gone and then you were back to sleep. Obviously we’ve been reading too much Winnie-the-Pooh.
No, your freaking out has been very conscious these days, and often very calculated. Your tiny groaning voice, barely crackling out of your throat, supported by almost no breath, argues with my choices at the most unexpected moments. These subtle little tantrums blindside me over and over each day as you try to fuss your way out of basic things like putting on your pants or whether you ought to wear your new dancing skirt or your old one. Sometimes these little grumpy moments are so obviously chosen, unencumbered by deep emotion. You’re just trying to alter the situation and you think this is a good way. Sometimes instead I recognize deep emotions under the surface, because when I tell you to talk to me in a big and cheerful voice it comes out strident and steely, an epic attempt to squelch the tremors of oncoming tears. Then I know there are feelings afoot and I need to meet them.
Is it a surprise to say we’ve been rehearsing Philippians 2:14 and 4:4 frequently with you these days? Not that you ought not to feel all those big, scary, grumpy feelings, but we are trying to help you learn when they’re inappropriate so you know they don’t control you; so you know they aren’t where your ultimate allegiance lies.
Times that they are inappropriate include church when I whisper instructions like “Do not touch Joshua while we are in worship. He has to learn to be quiet just like you, so leave him alone.” Then your body starts to flop around in one big pout. And then (I’m talking about last week) if you’re not careful your attitude problem will flop you right off the front of your chair and you will face-plant into the one in front of you, banging your knees on the concrete floor. Then Daddy will scoop you up and run you out before you scream and I will follow so he can return to the organ before his next cue, trying to muster compassion to see past my irritation since, now anyway, you do need genuine comfort.
Sometimes your feelings are appropriate, and it’s I who need to adjust my attitude. I’m not saying it makes sense for you to be scared of a loud-flushing potty, but it is a reality that I have no doubt about. So when you end up refusing to enter a public bathroom (I’m talking about last week, barely an hour after the face-plant incident) for fear of the loud potties, and you claim that you don’t need to pee, I should probably not push you to it. I should know by now that it will all dissolve into epic screaming and shrieking like certifiable PTSD, so instead of helping to lodge those feelings of trauma by refusing to accommodate your fear, I should probably just leave it alone and skip the bathroom trip.
I’m almost as clueless as you are about how these things should go – about what’s appropriate and what’s not and about when the emotions need to be the boss or when Mommy should call the shots instead.
I will tell you one thing I’m noticing, though: it’s my own selfishness toward you. Times like that bathroom shriek-fest I get this agenda in my head that I need to head those emotions off at the pass; shut them down; short-circuit them, so to speak. Sometimes there’s just more there than I want to do the work of acknowledging, so instead of honoring you and meeting you where you are I try control or manipulate (i.e. subtly control) you to stop crying or in general stop feeling.
This is stupid. So I’m working on it. It’s stupid partly because it doesn’t work and partly because it’s not what I want for you anyway. I want you to feel safe with your own emotions and I want you to feel that I’m safe with them too. This stuff is more complicated than I ever thought it could be!
I think my way – at least the one I’m blindly, cautiously improvising – is healthy and hopeful, but it feels complicated because it’s something of a hybrid. I grew up in a sub-culture that didn’t do much with emotion besides try to control or judge or discipline or ignore it away. I heartily believed by the time I was thinking for myself as an adolescent that all you could possibly need in life was God’s law (as if it were simple to parse into obvious minutiae!) and a framework governed by black-and-whites like obedience, sanctification, idolatry, depravity, and holiness. These are still concepts I espouse, but I’ve given up the idealism that held them front-and-center, immediate, and largely attainable and operable.
What I mean is that now instead I believe in embracing any given moment, living in the present even when it’s a messy place full of brokenness and sin; refusing the tendency to fear it away, control it away, judge it away, shame it away. I’m not meeting our imperfections and our present with antagonism, but acceptance. This means that my intent is not to control you or see your present struggles as failures. The road of sanctification is long, and it is a road. Judging or shaming the way-points is a waste of energy.
At the same time I don’t want to leave you at these way-points, and I don’t want to celebrate present struggles as though they are an end in and of themselves. At the opposite end of the spectrum from that black-and-white sub-culture I just described is our modern religion of self, which guides us to pledge allegiance to our feelings. It takes a therapeutic approach that never moves past feelings, and a child learns to be his own measure. Do you feel angry? Do you feel sad? That is the terminal question, which sets up emotions as an idol and results in a world full of people that don’t have the capacity to love beyond their own selves and their own immediate needs and desires; a world full of people who never experience the voluntary subjection of themselves for the sake of another or for the sake of an external standard.
Emotions are good and important, and acknowledging them and dealing with them is healthy and wise. But they are not ultimate, and where I have a problem with this end of the spectrum is its unwillingness to go beyond identifying an emotion and letting it run its own show, because this is often at the expense of love for God and neighbor. Rather, I want us to ask two more questions after we figure out what’s going on emotionally: First, should you be feeling this way, or is it sinful and/or foolish? (For example, feeling grumpy when I tell you to put your shoes on suggests that you are failing to be thankful, to honor your mother, and to submit yourself to authority.) And second, how can you express your emotions in a wise and Christian way? This is where God’s word comes into play, and its teaching on what it means to love our neighbor, to honor each other in our various relationships, to cultivate virtue and strive after holiness and uproot sin, conscious of our identity as God’s called-out people, eager to put on Christ because of our allegiance to Him, governed by the hope of becoming like Him. These are the ultimate things, more important than how you happen to be feeling.
One of the other important things I have to teach you before you stop listening to me (Oh wait, that already happened) is about that timeless classic The Princess Bride. I’ll start today, with a quote from this eminently quotable movie: “Let me explain. No, it’s too long. Let me sum up.” What I am trying to do for you is to patiently nurture you into an ability to work through heart issues with a long term and distinctly Christian view, to ask two questions simultaneously, trusting that in God’s kindness they will never be at odds with each other. I hope you’ll keep asking these questions every day for the rest of your life: “What does my heart need?” and “What does holiness look like?”
I love you.