Hop On the Cyclone of Compassion

2 May

A friend and I were talking about our small kids this week when she brought up her concerns about the teen years ahead. There’s a lot to worry about there, especially if my kids turn into rebel teens like I was. (I know, you’re shocked, right?) A couple years ago I would’ve jumped right on that gravy train of anxiety, realizing that, geez, I hadn’t worried about any of that stuff yet, and how am I going to make sure that my kid doesn’t hook up with online predators or use heroin or forget the condoms or become obsessed with crappy pop music a la Justin Beiber! AAHHHH!

Luckily for me, as I told my friend, I’m much too worried these days about whether or not I’ll find time to hang my clean clothes on the clothesline before they mold to worry about the distant future. And okay, I might just be dealing with my anxiety a little better these days. Or I could say that being a parent has obligated me to drop my control-freakness down about 27 notches. After all, starting in pregnancy, these little monsters start teaching you that YOU HAVE NO CONTROL OVER THEM. Nananana-boo-boo, stick your head in doo-doo.

So you better work on getting some control over your reactions, because that’s all you’ve got. You can hope all you want that they don’t get hurt or killed, but the only thing you get to control is resisting your own urge to hurt and kill them when they are driving you insane. Okay, you can take measures to protect them, yes, sure, please do. But you don’t have control. It’s not enough. Even the most sheltered, protected kids can die, or become junkies, or major in philosophy in college. You just can’t make them the way you want them to be.

You can read 80 thousand books on baby sleep issues and still not be able to make your kid sleep where and when you want them to. You can try to ban them from playing dress up, like one father did to his 3 year son when I worked at a daycare for one nightmare month, but you can’t take that desire out of them if that’s what they want. You can teach them to fight peer pressure, but nothing guarantees that they’ll be able to invoke that in the mere moment when someone they think is really cool offers them a beer. Even if they can fight peer pressure, what happens when they just want to do something you don’t approve of? Even babies, even toddlers who are dying to please you because you are still like god to them- they’re not ours. They’re not something we can control, they’re not even someone whose death we can always prevent. They’re their own little being with their own fate, which we have the privilege to help watch and nurture and cultivate, but the way they grow is all theirs. It’s not mine, anyway.

I’m learning this slowly but surely, and I hope that when my kids are teens, I’ll try to keep it in mind. Yes, I’ll do everything I can to help them lay strong roots, and be my own tree for them to lean into. But when bad things happen (and they will), when they make bad decisions (and they will), when they get hurt (physically and emotionally, I’m sure), I’ll be there. And that’s all I can do.

Once I finished laughing at myself for overcoming anxiety thanks to exhaustion, this conversation got me to thinking about what IS really important to me. What do I really, really hope for my children? Knowing I don’t get to control anything for real, but knowing that we all model the best we can and cross our fingers from there, what do I dream for my kiddos? If I could wish just one thing for them, how do I hope they turn out?

Hands down, if I could pick something to gift them, it would be compassion. More than anything, I want my kids to be people that care about other people. Starting now, and including caring about everyone. I want my children to be the kind of people who don’t feel ashamed that the news is making them cry. Who wipe their tears and brush off their knees, getting up to ask how we’re going to fix this. To be people who say, “Of course your pain affects me,” to people across an ocean and those in their neighborhood, to people who look like them and people who don’t, to anyone who is hurting. I dream that my children will be people who ask, “What can I do to help?”

I hope my kids are the kid who invites the smelly, still-nose-picking-in-the-third-grade kid to their lunch table, even if they kinda don’t want to, because they know they’ll feel too sad to watch him eat by himself, and they know it’s the right thing to do. I hope my kiids keep asking, like my 3 year old already does, why don’t some people have houses? And why can’t they just come sleep at our house? I hope they turn into big people who maintain their capacity to imagine what someone else is feeling, and to question everything. I hope that they decide every day that even if they can’t solve world hunger or turn the tide on climate change or prevent domestic violence or keep racist, murdering cops out of the system or a million other things that they wish they could fix, they can still aim to be part of the solution, to not do more damage if they can help it, to be nice to everyone along the way.

I want them to be compassionate with themselves. To forgive themselves when they realize they’ve made a mistake, to try to make amends. To take care of themselves, so that they can better take care of others. To know that they’re good enough just the way they are, and still try to be better every day.

Of course there’s loads to worry about when they hit the teen years. When I think about my teen years, I am overwhelmed and a little embarrassed, remembering my raging hormones and sexual urgency, the intensity of my romantic concerns, the way that just a person’s name could make me break out sweating in anticipation. I sigh, remembering the goth phase, the punk phase, and the 18 different colors that I dyed my hair (plus that time I shaved it). I fondly still dance to the CD from my favorite punk/ska band, but shake my head at myself thinking about the senseless risk of all the times I got rides home from strangers after a show. I smoked cigarettes outside of school, I drank alcohol with friends in public restrooms, I tried several different drugs. I adopted any traveler kid passing through my city, and when I turned 18 I took off to hitchhike around Europe. It was quite a tumultuous adolescence (sorry, parents), but aren’t they all, really, to some extent or another?

When I write down all that, it sounds rather frightening. But even while I was busy getting into all this trouble, I was also doing cool stuff. I was learning to be a good friend, trying to talk friends out of suicide and drunk driving, holding friends’ hands after sexual assault. I hung out a lot with a group of activist kids, who were writing and publishing their own zine and taking action in the world. We’d do stuff like protest a Klu Klux Klan rally, go to the mall and put informational leaflets in the clothes that were made in sweatshops, march in the gay pride parade, no matter what our sexual identity. I became a peer educator at Planned Parenthood. I attended and then became a youth counselor at an alternative diversity camp for teens. I left high school at 15 to reeducate myself. I published my own zine. I wasn’t always nice to everyone, but when I wasn’t, it was due to my wild hormones and trying to defeat my self-loathing, and not because someone was different from me.

I think the coolest part about me is my constantly cultivated sense of compassion, my ability to put myself in someone else’s shoes more often than not, even when it’s really, really painful. What I most love about myself, then and now still, is my ever burning desire for everyone to have justice, for everyone to have their human rights respected. I’m no Mother Teresa, I’m not Mr. Rogers, either. I’m not as amazing as this beautiful writer and activist, or even as wise and caring as my Nonna. But I am always nurturing my ability to give people, including myself, the benefit of the doubt, and to dish out the respect and care that I want for myself and my children.

I want this so desperately for my children, this cultivating compassion, because it’s such a win-win situation. If the world were full of compassionate people, there would still be hurt and suffering, but not on the scale that it is now, and not in the same systemically unjust ways that it is today. And the more I can practice compassion, the better I feel everyday. It’s often something really small, that seems inconsequential. Like the way that I see my nursing students slack and fall behind and have too many absences in my class. Instead of thinking, “Those lazy nursing students! They’re the only group that gives me such a hard time!” I decide to think, “Those poor nursing students. They must have it so much harder than the kids in the other majors. When they do show up to my class, half the time they’re sleep-deprived, or they’re starving because they don’t get a breakfast break until later in the day.” And it makes me feel better. It makes me get along with them better, because I have an open, caring attitude instead of being pissed off at them for missing my class too much. More of them make an effort to have a decent attitude in my class, even when they’re exhausted.

Compassion, caring, respect, all of these things are cycles just like the negative cycles we talk about- the cycle of violence, of abuse. Compassion can be its own powerful cyclone if we can get ourselves into the path of the storm.

So boy do I ever want that for my kids. But since we don’t get to choose how our kids will turn out, mine will probably rebel against me and turn into excessively materialistic, sedative-abusing, constantly-complaining mall rats or something. Of course, our town would have to build a mall first, so at least there’s that on my side. Meanwhile, I’ll stay in my busyness-induced state of zen, and worry about the teen years when they get here.

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