As a parent, I try to catch little opportunities to discuss deep matters with my child. You can’t just launch into a discussion about sex or death or right and wrong–they sense an agenda and get uncomfortable, changing the subject as fast as possible. Or there are the eye rolls, the one-syllable answers, and all the other dreaded signs that you have been placed into the annoying mom/mistress of the obvious/blithering idiot category until further notice. So you learn to be crafty and use a “la la, nothing to see here,” kind of approach.
Sometimes this yields great results. One day when my daughter was about three and a half, we watched a kids’ show that ended with a moral message about how stealing is bad. As we cuddled on the couch afterward, I listened to her opinion of the show and we talked about rules and why they are a good thing most of the time. “Not stealing sounds like a good rule to follow,” I said, and made my move. “Can you think of any other rules for living that are really important?”
While she pondered, I predicted that she would come up with something about kindness, or sharing, or not hitting your preschool classmates over the head with the heaviest toy you can find. After about twenty seconds, she made a decision. Turning to look into my eyes, she gravely pronounced, “Never give a duck a scarf.”
For some reason, my instincts told me not to ask why. I get these weird instincts with her, and I’ve learned to follow them. So I just nodded acknowledgement and we continued to other topics, and I never did find out why it’s important to keep certain accessories away from certain waterfowl. But the phrase has stuck in my head for these many years.
I think what I love about it is that it’s HER rule…conceived by her, by her own logic, for her own reasons. From early childhood, we’re influenced by so many rules that we never had a hand in creating. Some are clearly stated, like the laws of our communities. Some are cultural in nature, like definitions of beauty or standards of success. And some–often among the most damaging–come from those closest to us.
To seek recovery and healing from self-destructive behavior, or to find peace in a life that doesn’t fit what we were taught to want, means that we have to defy some of the old rules and create new ones that work. For me, part of that has been figuring out what those old rules are, especially the ones I got in my early years, and learning to hear their voice in my head. The more I can put them into words, the more separate from myself they become. I can engage them.
I even give them titles. “Trust no one.” “Keep your head down.” “Anger means someone will be harmed.” “Never be happy, that’s asking for trouble.” “It’s your job to keep the peace.” “Romantic relationships are doomed to end in a nightmare, but you have to have one going on at all times.” “Imperfection is failure.” “You must earn the right to exist.” Do you have any of these? What are yours, and how much do they still control you?
The other part of the journey has been learning to create rules of my own. My recovery work gets me closer to my values, dreams and hopes just as it helps me deal with pain and regret. So, what matters to me? What are MY rules for this life, and can I love myself enough to set them and try to live by them? Can I be like my Zen-master child and create them according to the unique logic of my mind and heart?
I’m certainly going to try. It might even be fun.