OK, stay with me here–this is a long one.
When I saw a mom feeding her kid a peanut butter energy bar in soccer class yesterday, I flipped. My heart was in my throat and I couldn’t think. What if Gabriel picked up a soccer ball after her son had touched it and went into anaphylactic shock? I’m not yet sure how serious his peanut allergy is (we’ll see his allergist in a few weeks) but I know enough about peanut allergies to know that they’re not something you mess around with. Especially after hearing stories from friends whose kids are severely allergic to peanuts. Like my friend Betsy, who had to rush her son to the ER after a woman opened up a can of nuts across the room from her son.
When we got home, I rushed around making lunch for the kids. I was still wound up, and I noticed myself getting more and more irritated with my children. Pretty soon, I was snapping at them.
And then a surprisingly clear thought popped into my head: Hey, T, the kids don’t know why you’re acting like a lunatic. They’re just acting out because they can feel that you’re about to flip your lid.
So I took a deep breath and told them why I was acting so crazy, told them how a woman at soccer had a peanut butter bar and I got really scared because I was afraid Gabriel might have an allergic reaction. Nico asked me a few more questions, and I answered him honestly.
The kids immediately settled down, and I tried to put a lid on it. I waited until I’d dropped Nico off at school and Gabriel was down for his nap before I started worrying about the next leg of horrors. Like how my used-to-be-favorite airlines Southwest still serves peanuts in-flight (something that pisses me off to no end), which means we’ll probably have to start flying another airline. And what about all of our friends whose kids subsist on PB&Js? Did this mean we could no longer visit them in their homes?
Yes, yes, I was completely spiraling out of control. But for those few hours, I was absolutely consumed by fear. Fear and the need to do whatever it took to protect my child.
So I pulled out my trusty little self-help book Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway by Susan Jeffers. (Yes, hokey title and I’m sure some will immediately gag, but it’s a book that has helped me throughout the years. There’s an especially great chapter about making decisions when you’re stuck, which I will no doubt write about later.) Anyway. I opened the book and landed on one of her favorite isms, which is “Say Yes to Your Universe.” The idea is that if you fight what’s happening to you, you’ll be more bummed out. Um, true. More than anything, I wished I could turn back the clock, live in that still-simple life before I knew my younger son had a life-threatening allergy.
Then I opened to the chapter about giving, and read the story about an assignment she gave her class at The New School in New York. Go home and thank your spouses, she told them. Tell them how much you appreciate them. Here’s what happened:
The following session brought the students into class with looks of dismay on their faces. They couldn’t believe how difficult it had been to acknowledge the contribution of their spouses. Some were able to do the assignment, though with reluctance; others simply could not do it at all. Some reported that they also tried to thank their children and parents, and that, too, was very difficult. For the first time, they were forced to question just how giving they really were. (Jeffers, 170)
Which of course got me thinking about Ken. If my last few posts are any indication, I definitely haven’t been very giving toward the man that I supposedly love with all my heart. Why was that? I kept on reading until the following sentence jumped out at me: “People who fear can’t genuinely give (172).”
Uh-oh. This sent me scurrying to a book I’d recently (yay) actually finished: Kate Braestrup‘s Marriage and Other Acts of Charity. Braestrup become a minister after her first husband, a state trooper, was killed in a car crash, and in this book she explores what it means to be married and to love someone. Interestingly, she’s very honest about the intense fights that characterized the first 9 years of her marriage with Drew:
I wonder if Drew and I used anger as a way of dulling our perception of the fearsome obvious: that sometimes cops go to work and do not come home. Anger is a common anesthetic in law enforcement marriages. The side effects are tough, though, and you need more and more of this drug to get the same effect. (Braestrup, 36)
This got me wondering if my anger at Ken was also rooted in fear. I started thinking about how much it sucked that we were both physically falling apart at the same time, how scary it was that his chronic illness flared up at exactly the same time my body was sending up its own SOS. Which got me thinking about the relationship between stress and illness, and how not-very-surprising it was that we were both tanking after these past few crummy months, when we’d learned that Ken’s dad was battling Stage 4 cancer, and my sister-in-law in Serbia passed away from breast cancer.
So, yes, I continue to be completely neurotic over here; I don’t think that will come as much of a surprise to any of you. Plus, let’s face it–we’re not exactly spring chickens over here. With me at 41 and Ken turning 50 soon, we’re way more conscious of our age than a lot of parents out there. Go ahead and do the math and you’ll see how important it is that we stay healthy and mentally with-it for as long as possible.
Plus, there’s the messy little whisper of where my own family fits into all of this, especially since my father died from cancer at 59, and my mother battled breast cancer–twice– in her early 40s. As Harriet Lerner talks about in The Dance of Anger, “anniversary reactions” often occur in the next generation without them being aware of it. For example, when I turned 40 and a mammogram came back looking a little sketchy, I immediately flipped b/c I was terrified I’d get breast cancer at the same young age my mother had. Same with Ken’s upcoming 50th and his chronic illness–it raises the spectre of my father’s young death and terrifies me that Ken’s not going to be around for me and the kids.
So is it any wonder that I’ve been acting like a certifiable lunatic, fearful of everything that crossed my path, when in reality I was just dealing with the mortality chip riding ever-so-quietly on my right shoulder?
But of course the good thing about finally figuring out why you’re freaking out is–bingo!– you can then take the necessary steps to fix it. Which means, for Ken and I, that it’s time for us to stop messing around and get our act together once and for all.
OK, now let me make one last super-human jump back to Braestrup’s book and see how she was finally able to let go of the intense anger that jeopardized her marriage. After a epiphany-kind-of-filled afternoon in which she finally realized how close she was to losing Drew, she realizes “how utterly I had failed to do something simple. I had refused to love the one I loved, the one I had vowed before God to love, the one God had placed not only in my path but in my own damned bed! Remedial Goodness was clearly in order. I would be good to Drew (45).”
If the God references here aren’t your thing, just gloss over them. Because I think the larger theme of what she has to say is so important. Which is: treat your loved ones better, with the love and respect they deserve. Treat them with agape (or what she believes is the highest love available to humankind), a love that’s based on true affection and, gulp, generosity. And if that’s not enough for you, she believes that the reason we’re all here is this:
The point of being human is to get better (and better) at caritas, at agape, at love (9).
That’s right–she doesn’t say anything about being more successful or having more money or any of the rest of those material aspects our society is based on. Just be good to each other, she says, and that should be enough. Hmm.
But wait. Before you take this off the deep end, I’m not advocating that you give up who you are or what you want in life to make your spouse happy. No sirree! All I’m saying is that maybe, just maybe, we can open our hearts a little bit more and notice that our spouse is still the same person we once loved with all our hearts. Remember how happy we used to be just to be with them? Remember how pleasure we used to take in doing some nice for them?
On that note, I’d like to end with the following passage. It blows my heart open and makes me wonder what the hell I’ve been doing with my life.
When asked, I have said that my call to professional ministry was inspired by the startling and to me miraculous abundance of caritas made available after my first husband, Drew, died. Friends, neighbors, strangers , took care of us, and with such generosity that I can’t think of that painful time in my life without remembering also their absurdly lavish gifts of love. And so it was love, not loss, I was called to honor with my ministry, love that I wished to explore, participate in, and cultivate and through my work.
An expanded answer, however, would have to include the way Drew loved me and I him. This wasn’t the same at the end as it was in the beginning. In fact, in a quieter miracle, we did at least begin to learn not only to need, lust after, laugh with, and feel affection for one another, but to offer each other compassion, and a more complete and generous acceptance–in a word, we became more charitable toward one another.
This was important and it was difficult. Looking back, I think I withheld my best and most generous love from Drew as if suspicious that he might not reciprocate, or as if reciprocity–a quid pro quo–were necessary. Blindness as to the extent of his generosity toward me was the inevitable corollary. In short, I loved him, but not fearlessly and generously, not with agape or anything approaching it. Which is sad, since everyone needs a little caritas, sometimes, and almost everyone is, in some way, able to give it. And the funny little secret of love is that the result of the gift is gratitude for both giver and receiver, and therefore joy.
I wish I had learned about this earlier. I am glad I learned it in time. (Braestrup, 9-10)