Resilience or "You're in Charge of Your Own Imagination"

So far, my children have had amazing teachers.  One of my favorites is a teacher Amira, now 7, had in Montessori pre-school.  This woman preached two very important lessons:  "you're in charge of your own imagination" and "everybody is a part of the community."  These two principles are guiding forces for how Amira understands and moves through the world.  

A couple of weeks ago, Amira encountered behavior that really challenged these values.  To be fair, her class has really struggled to get along.  There have been incidents of bullying, biting, and hitting.  Amira has chosen to deal with this by staying out of the fray and spending time with a very sweet group of friends she made last year.   Recently, a classmate formed a group of students to "teach" during recess.  Amira and her friends were excluded because they don't have black hair.  She clearly felt rejected and hurt, and didn't understand how people could be excluded because of the color of their hair.  In her world, everyone's a part of the community, and no one can be excluded.  There were tears and anger and confusion.  At one point, I was ready to march up to the school and have a heart-to-heart with her teacher.  Amira asked us not to. She didn't want to anger her classmate, and she wanted to handle it herself.  OK, I can wait.

As parents, we have worked hard to create and find environments that will nurture the healthy development of our children.  I realize that we can do this because we have the resources, time, and energy to do so. This is clearly not true for everyone. What I wonder sometimes is how resilient can our children be if their lives have limited opportunities for adversity.  How do they learn to trust themselves if they never have to struggle and figure things out on their own?  Where is the line that divides protection from over-protection, that may inhibit the development of self-trust and competence.  

I have a close friend who has a child, "E," who's in high school now.  A while back my friend and I were talking, and I was saying what a star E is.  My friend agreed, because she is, and then stated, "but she's never had to deal with anything hard."  She was wondering the same thing, does she have the resilience to deal with the hard stuff of life?

Another close friend of mine has a son who is graduating from high school this year, and will be going off to college in the Fall.  One of my all time favorite kid stories belongs to him, "J." One day, while in elementary school, a boy came into the bathroom and threatened to beat J up.  J looked him in the eyes and said, "I guess you can try" and then walked past him and out the door.  That incident fizzled away into nothing.  I do think our children face adversity.  The politics of the "playground" can be very challenging at times.  They may not have to deal with life-threatening trauma, but they do have to negotiate complicated relationships and power dynamics.

So Amira had two hard weeks of being sad, angry, confused, and hurt.  Last week, I asked her how school was.  She was talking about a girl in another class.  I asked her if this girl was a friend of hers, and Amira said "no" that she was like her class mate.  Then she said, "You know mom, not everyone has a beautiful heart."   I love that answer.  Now we can collectively assume that all children have beautiful hearts, and that their responses to themselves and others are partly a function of their experiences.  So what IS so great about Amira's answer?  She didn't personalize the rejection.  

Back to resilience.  In the above example, Amira didn't let the other child control her internal narrative.  Amira's classmate decided that because Amira doesn't look a certain way, she wasn't allowed in this exclusive club.  Instead of taking it personally and/or shaming herself, Amira decided that that kind of thinking doesn't work for her.  She's bounced back, as only a first grader can, and is learning that she's in charge of her own beliefs and her own imagination.  If you can take charge of your internal dialogue, then you can better manage difficult situations.  In the story involving J, he heard the threat, apparently didn't get lost in all the possible implications, trusted that he could handle it, and walked away. Now that's power.

Say Goodbye, Damn It

I wrote this a while ago.  But as we start a new year, I think it's important to wrap up any unfinished business from the old before moving on to the new.  Here are some of my thoughts.

Many years ago, before I went to grad school, I worked at a psychiatric treatment center with adolescent girls.  It was the job that changed the course of my life, but that's another story.  Before they left the treatment center, the girls were allowed to set up "goodbye talks" with friends.  I don't think any of the girls I was monitoring ever actually said "goodbye" during their talks.  Instead they used the time to talk or hang out.   Why, I wondered. Maybe they didn't know how to say goodbye, or maybe it's just too painful.

Thinking about it now, and seeing how badly I  handled opportunities to end relationships with dignity, I think both are true.  I also believe that two of our major life tasks are learning how to say "hello," or welcome people into our lives, and "goodbye," or letting go with grace.  This makes me think of a story I read recently.  Sandra Bem, feminist psychologist and pioneer in gender roles research, committed suicide earlier this year.  Sandra had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease about 5 years ago.  Early in the disease, Sandra decided that she wanted to end her life before the disease took away everything she held dear.  She talked about her decision with friends and family, bringing it up on occasion to help the people she loved come to terms with her decision and her death.  As she continued to decline, Sandra picked a date. The Sunday before, friends and family gathered in her living room to recount special memories and her accomplishments over the years, most of which she had forgotten.  Having her life mirrored to her by loved-ones was powerful for everyone there.  On the night of her death, Sandra took the cocktail she had ordered while her husband was out of the room.  She then called him in, and asked him to hold her while she died.  During this time, friends and family were at a friend's house making dinner and comforting each other.  

Regardless of how you feel about suicide, this was an amazing goodbye.  The comfort and support available to everyone was profound.  And everyone had the opportunity to say what they needed to say and to get closure without regrets.  This goodbye was epic.  Thankfully, most of the goodbyes we encounter in life are not about the death of a loved one.  How do we manage those?

Years ago, I was in a group with a man who had a huge impact on my life.  We were in group together for a long time and had developed a deep bond.  In group therapy, the relationships you develop are for therapeutic purposes not social.  Therefore, these bonds can be very intense and life altering.  So it came time for me to leave group, and I needed to have my "goodbye talks."  When it was his turn to say goodbye to me, my friend wrote me the most beautiful note on the back of a picture of his daughter, stating how much the relationship meant to him.  When it was my turn, I had very little to give him.  To this day, I regret not having brought more of myself to the process.  What happened?  I think I was not ready to let the relationship go.  It felt too sad, and I avoided facing this very important moment.  I still have regret. 

So what could it look like?  Share memories, talk about both the good times and bad.  State what you will miss, and how that person has impacted your life.  Make amends, say you're sorry for mistakes you've made and hurts you might have caused.  Put it all on the table, and say "goodbye."  Walk away with longing and sadness, but no regrets.