In Praise of Discomfort
I’ve recently realized that I have a weirdly difficult time sitting with discomfort. There. I said it. And by discomfort, I don’t mean the torment of hemorrhoids or the agony of, say, an infestation of earwigs — I am talking about the emotional anguish and anxiety that each of us, as humans, is required to endure every day.
Disappointment. Frustration. Fear. Stress. Heartache. I hate it all. And as much as I despise experiencing these things myself — more than anything, I hate watching my kids suffer through even the smallest dose of discomfiture.
This is probably true of most parents, of course. Nobody enjoys seeing their child stumble and fall (although one would hope that La Mère Bieber is counting on the ultimate value of public humiliation and international ridicule).
But apparently most parents don’t have this same compulsive obsession with either preventing or fixing each misfortune laid at their children’s feet. I do. And for the last 14 years, I have twisted myself into knots (despite my — ahem — limited core strength), accommodating nearly every whim and righting every wrong. And guess what? This has hurt my kiddos far more than it has helped them.
I very clearly remember the first time that the massive tsunami of mama discomfort flooded my body: It was when the delivery nurse pricked my newborn baby girl’s heel for that blood test they do right after birth. Incensed, I felt the power of the Hulk surge through my raging post-partum body; I clambered from the hospital bed and desperately grasped for my daughter. I wanted to howl an alert, like the savage creature with a disfigured green face: “Nooooobody hurt my baaaaabbbyyyy agaaaaain, do you understaaaaaaaand?!”
It was probably then (oops, too late!) that my baby’s father realized he’d bred himself to a total freak and would never be able to turn back the hands of time to regain an anxiety-free existence. In fact, just a few weeks ago he and I had this conversation after one of our children suffered a disappointment:
Me: God, I wish I could just snap my fingers and remove all pain and discomfort from our children’s lives until the end of time.
Him: Really? That sounds awful.
Me: Why? Not to me, it doesn’t.
Him: Because then they’d never gain the skills to function properly in the real world!
Me: Oh ... right ...
Here is that big A-ha moment Oprah talks about: If we don’t learn how to cope with the trauma and discomfort of being human, then we will never grow up and function in a healthy way.
How could I — at the distinguished age of 44 — not yet have gotten that memo?
After my parents’ divorce; my father’s death; the birth of my two children; the loss of my professional identity; several cross-country relocations; and, worst of all, the disintegration of my own marriage: How am I just now beginning to understand what Kelly Clarkson has been singing about for years, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stron-ger/Stand a little tal-ler ...”
Well, some of us are slower than others; and some of us have better teachers. Having both suffered massive losses in their childhood, my parents both unwittingly enabled me to reject discomfort as much as possible. I was the baby of the family; they had post-divorce guilt and weren’t exactly paragons of responsibility with super-attuned coping skills. But that’s not really their fault either, because they weren’t taught these skills in the first place.
Like cankles or alcoholism, these things get passed down from generation to generation. Besides, it’s too boring and obvious to blame the parents.
For the sake of my children (and in the hope that they won’t want to hang me upside down by my toenails someday for treating them like breakable china dolls), I am finally learning how to be a grownup. Because being a grownup doesn’t just mean getting older, drinking scotch and paying taxes, it means learning to sit with discomfort. It means that when you are faced with something unpleasant, painful or disheartening, you don’t just bat it away like a gnat or a dog fart — you sit with it, let it fill your body, saturate every last cell of your being and cope with it.
What — you may wonder, as I often have — is a healthy way of coping? Well, I’m still learning and so am relatively new at this. But here are some examples of what I hear are good coping skills: getting outside; exercising (ugh); writing in a journal; cuddling with a pet; laughing at the absurdity of life and remembering that things could almost always be worse.
Does this mean that you can’t have a few glasses of wine and cry yourself to sleep? No. But it does mean that you can’t have a few bottles of wine, stay in bed for three days and re-read your wedding vows till the ink runs from your tears (trust me, I tried this; it’s not so good.)
Because no matter what else you are, you are a parent. And, as a parent, you are not allowed to go off the rails for any period lasting longer than just a few hours (and you are not allowed to make any felonious or life-altering errors in judgment in those few allotted hours.) You. Must. Deal.
And, not to scare you, but if you don’t learn how to cope, then your children won’t either. I learned this one the hard way (and will be telling you all about that particular nightmare at some point soon) and so what I say is true. Once you learn to accept life’s bumps, warts and curveballs with a modicum of grace and chutzpah, then you can sit with your child and help him do the same.
By learning to deal with your own discomfort and helping your children figure out how to deal with theirs, you are modeling healthy grownup behavior. Hooray! See how easy that was? (Not.)
Now, if only I could find a cure for hemorrhoids ...