There I was, enjoying my morning cup of coffee – my only cup of coffee, mind you, now that I’m over 35 and no longer a fan of the two-cup brain buzz – when a scrap of paper landed in my lap. Before I could register the delivery, my 7-year old son was already up the stairs and safely hidden out of sight.
A pair of familiar brown eyes peeped around the stairwell as I worked to make sense of the ham-handed pencil scrawl: “this reposens me wen your mad.” (Or, to a more trained eye: “this represents me when you’re mad”). A tearfully drawn round face flanked the message, for effect.
I birthed you, I raised you, I fed you – and this is the thanks I get? A piece of hate mail during my daily five minutes of “me” time?
Still, beneath the slight irritation regarding poor timing, another question bothered me more: why can’t my son tell me his feelings straight to my face? Why all the pre-meditation and espionage?
This wasn’t the sort of message you write on a whim or out of the blue; it was a response to something I did – some specific instance in which my actions made Joey uncomfortable. And, rather than risk making me angry again and creating a “shoot the messenger” situation, he opted for a more indirect method. The next best thing to texting me from his room (which will likely be my reality in a few short years).
I don’t blame him. Emotions are hard enough to identify, let alone share with others. When we realize that someone else’s actions or words wounded us, it feels far easier (and more logical) to mitigate further injury by avoiding the culprit or putting up walls to protect ourselves; a set of rules designed to erect invisible boundaries around our hearts. “You can access this small part of me, but no more.”
It feels dangerous to take the greater risk of “putting ourselves out there;” to look someone in the eye and say, “This thing you did hurt me.” To make such a direct statement is to not only expose the wound, it also asks of the other person, “What are you going to do to make this right?” In doing so, we place ourselves in a vulnerable position in which we may incur further insult or injury; a response of calloused disinterest or anger.
But we also put ourselves in a position to be surprised.
Because an opportunity to confront a mistake and seek forgiveness is every bit as precious as a chance to bravely reveal an injury. It’s a time of true testing; is your ego too big to admit wrongdoing or entertain the idea that you, too, can inflict pain? All of us are, at one time or another, the perpetrator and the victim. We feel hurt. We cause hurt. How we choose to respond, on either side, says a great deal about our character.
Joey writing me that note didn’t immediately stop me from letting my temper get the best of me. Earlier today, I shrieked and yelled all through the house while gathering the kids’ paraphernalia for our daytime adventures. It was unpleasant for all involved. And it’s something I always tell the kids to avoid: “there are more productive ways of expressing your frustration than screaming.”
Shit. Do as I say, not as I do.
Still, while making his feelings known wasn’t a quick fix to the problem, Joey gave me a higher standard for which to reach. I’m getting better at dealing with those frustrating moments healthfully, in a way that doesn’t elicit hate mail. And, I’m getting better at pointing out my own mistakes before my kids feel the need to do so; most importantly, making sure they know none of this reflects on them. I want them to be able to speak up when they feel violated. I also want them to know there are people out there carrying a boatload of anger that has nothing to do with them. It takes wisdom to know which battles to fight.
I’m thankful my kids haven’t given up on me. I hope they never do. I hope they always see, beyond the mess and dysfunction, the potential for change and the possibility of a positive outcome – in me, in themselves, in those around them. I hope they never stop fighting to be heard and understood, by me or each other. Even if they have to deliver their feelings in a handwritten note during the only 5-minute block when I’m fully available, like coffee time.