Is your Twitter timeline dominated by sunshine, emoticons and exclamation points? Do you apologize for crying – even at funerals, even to your therapist? Do you get pissy with your Jack Johnson Pandora station when it inexplicably plays Counting Crows?
Guilty, guilty, guilty!
I’m guilty of this, too: “Why is Mama mad at me for being upset?”
My daughter, Lily, and a team of friends performed at an improv competition this weekend for smart, creative elementary school students. They argued publicly at the beginning of the skit, broke a rule involving the set, and ran out of time to finish.
The kids expressed varying levels of disappointment in their performance, with my daughter hoisting the weight of the blame upon her own shoulders. As she hid behind a corner sobbing, refusing to listen to the pep talk given by her father / team manager, the other kids recovered communally. The boys on the team chased each other around the hallway. The girls consoled each other calmly. I tried dragging Lily into the fold to soak up the positive energy flowing from her teammates, but she was convinced she alone was to blame for all that went awry. The more reluctant she was to join them, the more determined I was to make her.
“I’m going to give you five more minutes to tell me what Daddy and I can do help you be happy,” I demanded. “You want to be happy, right?”
Lily begrudgingly agreed she would like to “feel better”. At the end of five minutes, with no suggestions for how her father and I could make that happen, I insisted (not so cheerfully) we would all get frozen yogurt together.
This is what prompted her to ask why I was so mad at her for being upset.
As children, we haven’t yet formed the boundaries needed to deal with emotions in a productive way. But nor have we lost or buried the ability to express them honestly. Might I be contributing to my daughter’s future inability to cope adequately with disappointment? Am I militantly happy?
As not to beat myself up, let me say I understand my behavior comes from a compassionate place. I cannot stand to see my daughter upset. I cannot stand to see her cry, to blame herself for the travails of a whole team. I cannot stand to watch her extract herself from friends who support and cherish her. I am her mother, and I love her fiercely as I know my own mother loves me. But it’s understandable Lily wouldn’t have this perspective through a cloud of disappointment and guilt. Rather, in a moment when she felt she had failed, she interpreted my impassioned desire for her happiness like this: See? Even my mother is disappointed in me right now.
Sian Wiltshire is the intern pastor at First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville. She recently gave a sermon about living authentically through every moment. If “right now” is a struggle, we may feel we have nothing but our own anguish. But the fact is we have it; the experience is ours from which to learn and grow. It is a gift.
This is not an attack on happiness or hope. In fact, it takes a fiercely optimistic person to embrace a moment of disappointment.
Rather, this is support for what is real – a challenge to confront all the mess, confusion and disappointment that comes with being alive. When the sun shines, may you see it with brighter contrast. May you see it sooner rather than later. But if it takes awhile for the clouds to part, may you know that’s okay too.