I did not see the straw that broke the camel’s back. But the reasons that compelled my 9 year old to repeatedly whip a tennis ball into her sister’s masterpiece lego house on wheels presumably ran deep into the sinkhole that was 2020.
After going all Godzilla on her sister’s prized creation, she ran down the hall and locked herself in her room. I had been getting ready for the day and missed the fireworks and the twenty minutes of sequestration that followed. At first she refused to let me in but after some cajoling, she unlocked the door before throwing herself back on her bed, resuming the fetal position, hugging a giant stuffed dog named Bailey. What followed next I found remarkable.
She asked me to look at the whiteboard on her closet door where under the heading of “What I’m feeling” she had listed in vivid and raw terms what was racing through her little head and big heart.
“Frustrated, ready to explode like a volcano, sad, like a bird trapped in a cage, lonely, invisible” were just a few that cut me to the core.
She said she had written the list after using her school-issued Chromebook to search, “What should I do when I’m sad and want to feel better.”
Whatever search result she clicked on suggested that she write the aforementioned list, let it all out in a good cry, and read a book.
She told me she tried all three.
By this time, I had laid down beside her. She reached behind her back, not making eye contact, grabbed my hand and held it tight. Soon after, she turned towards me, gave me a big, long hug and while squeezing as hard as she could, let out another good cry.
After a few minutes, we started talking more about what she was feeling and why. Eventually we returned to join the family in the living room. After some small talk with her sisters, she pulled out an index card and began writing. When finished she walked over and handed me this note which said “I was having a really, really bad day. You made it a little better. I love you.”
I was so impressed by my little nine year old. How she managed to search, not just online but within, for how to make herself feel better. To express her feelings. To find solace in a book or a stuffed animal. To let her emotions fly out of her in words and tears. And then when it was all out, to take the time to express gratitude for the small role I had played – which was simply to be there and to listen.
Presumably, many of us are in a state of simply wanting to “feel better.” Undoubtedly there was some catharsis in watching the clock strike midnight and bid farewell to 2020. But the turning of a page on a calendar is not a salve for all what ails us. If anything, the early days of 2021 may create unrealistically high expectations for our individual and collective moods..
To feel better we must have the courage to share our feelings and listen with an open heart to those of others. Accepting the feelings of each other without defensiveness, dismissiveness or deflection.
At first, when looking at the list of feelings on my daughter’s wall, each word made me count the many apparent ways I had failed her. Later, reflecting on the maturity with which she worked through her feelings made me think perhaps I had not.
Honestly, I’m not quite sure.
But this I do know. Things won’t just get better because it’s a new year. Things will get better when we start to feel better. And to feel better, we must be better to those around us… and to ourselves.