In my 25 years of writing books for children and teens, I’ve had my share of plot problems. Often, when a writer finds she has written her characters into a situation she can’t quite get them out of, she is tempted by (but must resist!) the deus ex machina solution. This literary term (literally “the god from the machine”) comes to us from ancient Greek drama, and refers to the device of lowering a statue of a god onto the stage to resolve a crisis. Evidently this was perfectly satisfactory to the ancient Greeks, but it is far from satisfactory for us today. When the hero or heroine of a drama gets bailed out of a tricky situation by some unforeseen and improbable stroke of luck, the reader is left feeling cheated. There was no clever resourcefulness, physical skill or moral courage at work to save the day, just a lousy old deus ex machina. “Oh come on, really?” the reader asks. “How convenient.”
One of the ways to determine if a given situation requires courage is to dig for the risk. On Lion’s Whiskers our definition of courage has less to do with fear, and more to do with risk. If you perceive a risk (either real or imagined), then you need courage to face the risk. In most matters of intellectual courage, the risk is being wrong. Being wrong, as “the world’s only wrongologist,” Kathryn Schultz, points out in this fascinating TED lecture, does not feel good. Correction: knowing that you are wrong does not feel good. As Schulz observes, often when we are wrong we don’t know it, so we feel fine. It’s the discovery that we were wrong that can feel so bad. In fact, the more our identity is wrapped up with our intellectual accomplishments or with our ideologies, the worse being wrong feels. It ought to be a simple matter of saying, “Oops, this fact I thought was true is actually false,” and letting it go, but instead we make it about ourselves: we are wrong. Ow.
Refusing to accept the reality about the person standing on your foot is generally an indication that the risk of being wrong is truly enormous, that it threatens the very foundations of a whole system of beliefs. A good example of this is the Inquisition of Gallileo, who presented evidence of planetary motion around the sun and the imperfection (in the form of sunspots) of the universe, and spent the rest of his life under house arrest because of it. (In this case I am talking about religious belief.)
Not long ago I ran into a version of this problem with my daughter, who had decided that something she had been doing (let’s call it X) was not at all her cup of tea. The problem arose when I asked how she felt about the thing that X was a subset of, and her position was she didn’t see anything positive about any of it, because she didn’t see anything positive about X. She was taking the part for the whole, a logical fallacy called pars pro toto. This is the (often false) belief that what is true for part of a thing is true for the whole thing. I kept asking, “But what about this part, and this other part, and this other part?” and she dug her heels in even harder and claimed I was forcing her to accept X!
So I backed off. Just as I have been trying to model that failure is always an option, I am trying to model that being wrong is always an option, too, and that revising an opinion in the light of new evidence is totally acceptable. The more often I can find opportunities to say, “Oh, I guess I was wrong about that,” the better. Mind you, at first I didn’t especially enjoy saying, “Look, there I go being wrong again,” but the truth is it actually gets easier the more I do it! Lisa recently wrote about making failure okay, and how liberating it can be to let go of perfectionism, and I am finding it very liberating to make being wrong okay. Besides, it’s exhausting having to be right all the time – and my friends will tell you it’s very annoying!
Here’s Kathryn Schulz’s liberating (and entertaining) TED lecture, and notice (near the end) what she has to say about stories. Enjoy!
Here’s another reason why sharing stories that illustrate all six types of courage with your kids may be a very constructive project. As children develop and acquire language, they are actively engaged in concept formation (which of course began in infancy). What is “dog” or “chair” or “jumping” or “soft”? These are all concepts that are learned through exposure to a wide variety of examples. Each exposure helps the child refine the prototype, the essence or ideal, if you will, of “dog” “chair” “jumping” and “soft” based on what is common among all the examples of the concept.
|John Collier c. 1898, Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry|
This enduring and popular English legend is, like many legends about historical figures, very unlikely to be true. But what I like about it is that given the culture and norms of the period when this story gained popularity, this is a story of extreme social courage. Imagine if you will a Zeitgeist very different from Girls Gone Wild (and if you don’t know what that is, it’s just as well.) In the 11th century, a noblewoman’s virtue was her most valuable possession, because without it her future was grim indeed. We’re not talking about the risk of embarrassment. This would have been the risk of being banished to a cloistered convent or worse. There would have been a wide selection of sanctions to punish her with, but (according to legend) Lady Godiva risked it anyway.
A couple of years ago, Jennifer, my husband and I took our kids to a ropes course called Adirondack Extreme. It is described as an “Aerial Tree Top Adventure” which includes a complex ropes course suspended between trees at 10 to 60 feet off the ground. It promised to be a fun physical courage challenge. Little did I know that it would be more of an emotional and social courage challenge for me. The labyrinth of ropes wouldn’t prove to be my biggest adversary, but untangling myself from my own perfectionism would be.
Jennifer did not climb due to an old injury, but she supervised our daughters on the kids’ course. My husband, our son, and I challenged the adult course. We attended a brief instruction on how to put on our harness, how to securely hook and unhook ourselves along the course, and how to ask for help—if push came to shove and we decided we were done at some point along the increasingly challenging course. I paid pretty close attention to the introductory talk, but only half-listened to the “asking for help” part. As I’ve written about previously in my post “Quitters, Campers, and Climbers,” I’m not much of a quitter. I’m a climber who, I’m embarrassed to admit, even sometimes secretly feels superior to quitters.
By the time I reached mid-course, my then 12-year old son was lapping me. He seemed recklessly, blissfully unaware of all the risks that I was quickly becoming aware of as I looked down from the tree tops to the ground twenty, then fifty, feet below. He just kept saying “Mom, this is SO much fun. It’s easy!”
I can assure you this course was NOT easy! And I was so over the idea of this being fun. The more joyless and humorless I became, the more rigid my body became. My joyful son, on the other hand, had the agility of a monkey; while I swung precariously, holding on for dear life with increasingly sweaty palms, between the various rope mazes. He was fearless, while I was quickly becoming fearful.
One of the big differences between kids and adults in terms of risk assessment is the cognitive tricks that our minds begin to play with us as we develop. According to child psychologist Dr. Tamar Chansky (2004), in her book Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Powerful, Practical solutions to Overcome Your Child’s Fears, Worries, and Phobias, we feel anxious when we begin to confuse the possibility of occurrence with the probability of it actually occurring. Dr. Chansky writes that the “Anxious Response= Overestimation of Threat + Underestimation of Ability to Cope.” So, while I was focusing on whether or not the ropes were strong enough to hold me, the possibility of falling, how painful it would be to hang upside down for an extended period of time waiting for help, whether or not my children (who I no longer had in sight) were okay or not, and how embarrassing it would be to quit; my son was enjoying each new obstacle on the course while feeling totally secure in his crotch harness and physical ability.
At the second to last level, all alone now on the course, I was officially scared. But quit? OMG, no way! Quitting = Failure, to the perfectionist mind. Which is, as Jennifer wrote in her last post Failure is Always an Option, “tantamount to total annihilation.” At the very least, annihilation of the ego. Success for me, at times, can be deeply intertwined with trying to prove that I’m lovable and valuable. In short, I wasn’t a kid who learned that her success in life is based on who she is, not on how she looks or what or how well she does. A perfectionist places more value on how she appears to the world than on who she is on the inside. This misplacement of her inherent value creates a fragile ego swinging precariously from one success to the next, desperately trying to avoid the identity-crisis pitfalls that mistakes, and especially failure, threaten. It’s also what makes perfectionists highly competitive and probably not all that relaxing to be around sometimes. Needless to say, this aspect of my personality is not particularly healthy–nor is feeling secretly superior to quitters, for that matter! These are not personality characteristics I wish to pass along to my children. Instead, I parent my kids in ways that focus on their inherent value. I focus less on how they look and what grades they get, but more on the core qualities they are developing as kind, loving human beings. I encourage them to listen to their limits and feelings, to focus on their successes, to identify goals that are truly important to them (not society at large), to do their best because there is no such thing as perfect, and to be gentle with themselves when they make mistakes. I’ve coached them to develop an internal locus of control (you can read my parenting tips here: Are You an Inny or an Outy?) And I’m known for saying “I love who you are, and who you are becoming.” Let’s be honest, embracing this kind of unconditional acceptance of both ourselves and our children is kind of radical—especially today in our culture of overachievement! Dr. Brene Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection is a great resource for anyone interested in understanding and letting go perfectionism!
One of the many gifts of being a parent, in my opinion, is that we get the chance to teach (and learn from) our kids what we, too, need to learn in life. In essence, parenting has given me the opportunity to release myself from perfectionism’s uncomfortable grip and develop the kind of self-acceptance and love that my kids seem to instinctively possess. And now I was about to model that it’s sometimes okay to quit!
When I reached the next tree post, I found myself hugging and not wanting to let go of that tree with the kind of intense love usually reserved for extreme environmentalists. I was done! It was suddenly much more important to me to listen to my body’s limits and find my kids on the course than to prove to myself and others that I could finish. Suddenly, quitting was not only an option, but it was okay. I couldn’t remember the code word the guide had told me to yell if I needed to be rescued, but in any situation screaming “HELP!” usually works. I started with a timid “Helloooooo. Guide?!” which quickly progressed to screaming above the treetops “HELP! I need to get down now.”
In a matter of minutes, a very kind and capable young man arrived on the scene to lower me from the towering heights of my new BFF. I told him I was okay and felt surprisingly calm. I wanted to reassure him that I wasn’t going to cling to him like a crazy lady when he finally reached me. He, in turn, reassured me that this kind of thing happens every day. That made me feel a lot better! I found myself laughing, recalling my high-pitched screams for help above the tree tops, and relaxing as he lowered us to the ground. I was amazed not to be embarrassed. The earth did not open up to swallow me whole when my feet reached terra firma. Throngs of people weren’t waiting on the ground to laugh, jeer, and otherwise poke fun at my failure. These are the kinds of thoughts that keep perfectionism well-fed, by the way, and keep us from trying things that might mean risking failure in some way, shape, or form. In fact, I felt kind of proud of myself. I had actually asked for help and received it! Trust me when I say, it took more emotional courage for me to quit, ask for help and trust that it would arrive, and social courage to risk embarrassment amongst my peers and family, than the physical courage to force myself to finish the course.
I could have focused on my failure and spiraled down into an abyss of low self-esteem, but I made my failure okay by focusing instead on what I was able to accomplish. I made it okay to quit by untangling who I am as a person from my perfectionist expectations. I discovered that the belief that you are already “good enough,” no matter what you are able to accomplish, is perfectionism’s personal kryptonite. Adopting a new respect for quitting has also freed me up to be willing to climb again!
By honoring the type of courage I actually needed to develop, I was able to reframe my perceived physical courage “failure” as an emotional courage accomplishment. We can do this for our kids, too, by helping them to recognize the gains they make everyday, by breaking apart difficult tasks into smaller more manageable and achievable ones, and by celebrating their successes. We can help them identify which of the six types of courage they are developing, and are capable of, in everything they do!
As I was writing this post, I asked my daughter to define failure. Her answer: “There is no such thing as failure Mom. Whatever you are able to do is okay.” When I also asked if she’d like to try the adult course with me again this summer, now that she’s almost 12, she said: “Probably not. I’m not a big fan of heights.”
You can read more about coaching kids to face challenges in my previous post: Discourage/Encourage: What’s a Parent to Do?
Last week, in the first part of this interview with former professional ballet dancer, Jane Haugh, we discussed what can make a person willing to tolerate pain. Here, in Part II, we continue to explore pain as a voluntary experience, and as an involuntary experience. Jane now lives with her husband and three children in the Adirondack Mountains in New York. Pain (as opposed to suffering, which is mental or emotional) is in the body, and thus is the risk associated with physical courage.
what I did in order to be a professional dancer in terms of dancing on stress fractures and soft corns with such unbelievable pain – I don’t know how healthy that was. I do question my decision to do that.
I think that it wasn’t emotionally and psychologically really healthy to get to the point where you could disengage your nerve centers from your feet so you didn’t feel your feet anymore. That’s not me. That’s not part of my body. That doesn’t hurt. To the point where I would sometimes bang my feet against something because that hurt so much that my brain shut that down and I could pretend it wasn’t there. So a little pain can be more difficult than a lot of pain. And I don’t think that’s so good! I think that’s kind of sick!
I think her body experiences less pain. Her body recovers from pain more quickly. She recovers from emotional upset more quickly. She recovers from loud noises more quickly. Her physiological self recovers faster from things. But I think T. [her son] – I don’t know how much pain he experiences but he rebounds very quickly partly because he doesn’t want to stop in order to feel that pain. So he can have a huge knot on his head and I think it’s got to hurt, but if I go to touch it he’ll shy away and it does hurt him, but he doesn’t want to stop. So that’s a different way to overcome pain, is to be so focused on what you want to do that the pain is secondary. So with my sister, I learned early on not to project any kind of pain I was feeling onto anyone else’s situation because it so often just doesn’t work. I’d be all sympathetic [to a fellow dancer] and they’d be like “What?” I’d say, “Your feet are a mess!” but it wasn’t bothering them.