“To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden.”
I have recently been studying the ancient Stoic, Seneca. He lived over 2000 years ago and became an advisor to two Roman emperors. He wrote much about overcoming the fear of death. He put his philosophy to the test when he calmly killed himself at the order of Emperor Nero. The fear of death haunts many of us, but everyday anxieties can be even more emotionally and physically stifling. The world has always been full of worry, full of fear – often justified but rarely helpful. Recently, we have all been given real cause to fret – for evil is showing its face for all. How can we face the reality of the world and yet calmly do what needs to be done? Below are some thoughts by Seneca on dealing with our anxieties and implementing the wisdom of the Stoics.
“There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
“What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come.”
“Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.”
“Silence is a lesson learned through life’s many sufferings.”
“We should always allow some time to elapse, for time discloses the truth.”
“He who indulges in empty fears earns himself real fears.”
“Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all, – the fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering; since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet.”
“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that things are difficult.”
About a year ago we got chickens. We bought them as little chicks and miraculously, they all survived to adulthood. Our two little girls adored them. They would rush to the coop every morning to see their chickens. We soon realized that one of our little chickens was a rooster. Once the hens started laying, the girls loved gathering the eggs in their basket. However, a few months ago our rooster started lunging at the girls and pecking at their feet. They became too scared to visit the coop. I wasn’t too sad to see their visits cease, I was scared of the rooster myself. However, my oldest daughter, tough girl that she is, invented an ingenious solution – she showed her younger sisters how to swing a stick at the rooster, forcing him to run off. Her younger sisters became experts in “Rooster Baseball”. They started eagerly tending to their chickens again.
A few days ago we had a little friend come over to play with the girls. They were excited to show her their chickens. However, they were quickly disappointed to discover their little friend was afraid of chickens and didn’t want to go in the coop. My youngest ran up to me and said in amazement, “Mom, she was scared of the chickens!” How quickly she had forgotten her own fears. I explained to her, “She isn’t used to chickens.”
My girls aren’t any more brave than their friend, they have just learned through experience the skills needed to raise chickens. They now feel a sense of control and power, developed through consistent exposure and by overcoming difficulty when chicken-raising got tough. Their sister, and a stick, helped them gain that confidence – and now their fear is a fading memory.
“The way that you make people resilient is by voluntarily exposing them to things that make them uncomfortable.”
When we raise our children, we build for them a life full of experiences and these experiences become their reality. If we are intentional, we can develop a environment full of resilience-building habits, consistently encouraging our children to push beyond their comfort zones.
When I hear stories of my grandparents and great grandparents I am shocked by what children used to be capable of. My grandfather was seven and already helping drive cattle. My grandpa used to say, “Maybe there is a way to raise kids without a farm but I have never seen it done successfully.” Let’s hope he was wrong. But modern parents are at a real disadvantage compared to our ancestors in one way – teaching resilience and toughness through work used to be a naturally occurring process. Parents of the past not only wanted to have children, often they needed to have children. They needed help on the farm, in the shop, or in tending to household chores. Our modern sensibilities assume this “child labor” was all bad. But many children developed confidence and mental toughness through these necessary responsibilities. They knew they were helping drive their family toward safety and stability- modern children are often clueless passengers. While we should be grateful that children don’t have to carry the burdens they once did – we should not be blind to the downsides of our modern lives of ease, if that is what we have. (There are still billions living lives of financial and physical hardship all around the world).
While those blessed with economically stable lives may not be able to recreate the “necessary work” of our ancestors – we can be creative. I don’t believe in creating work for works sake – this can feel torturous to children. There must be some purpose and goal to work for it to feel meaningful. Raising chickens, involving them in household chores, and looking for opportunities to serve others – can help in building fortitude. Sports, music, and outdoor activities can be a good medium for teaching resilience as well.
“The habits we form from childhood make no small difference, but rather they make all the difference.”
As parents it may be easier, and safer, to keep our children on the couch – to entertain them with Netflix and video games. But Seneca points out, there must be “daring” if we want to grow strong children. We must dare – dare to point our children toward hard work and adventure and not mourn when difficulty arises, but rather see difficulty as a chance to build resilience and perspective. With every new experience comes new dangers – new worries for a protective mother. However over-protection can leave our child fearful and weak. We must resist the temptation to step in too soon, dare to risk a peck or two at your children’s feet.
Adversity and worry are a part of life, and increasingly seem to be crippling our youth. But we can raise a child that is capable of facing fears. We can “dare” them to do the difficult and unfamiliar and encourage them in appropriate risk-taking. We can give them the space to invent Rooster-baseball.
“During the first period of a man’s life, the greatest danger is not to take the risk.”
“Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength- carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”
We all have good reason for worry. The sufferings, uncertainty, and anger we see all around us may leave us feeling powerless and at the mercy of an unloving world. A few nights ago I felt a darkness surround me. I was concerned about a relative’s health uncertainty, my own children’s future in this world, the economy, and numerous other anxieties. I tried to distract myself, but a feeling of dread weighed upon me. I went to bed but could not sleep. As I lay awake the story of Corrie Ten Boom came into my mind. She was a strong Christian woman from The Netherlands, placed in a concentration camp during WW2 for the crime of hiding Jews in her home. Most of her family was killed, including her beloved sister who died while in the camp together. Her book, The Hiding Place, is a testament to the power of love and faith in overcoming darkness. Corrie Ten Boom was a woman who had every reason for anxiety, anger, and despair. Yet she understood the self-defeating nature of worry.
“Worry is a cycle of inefficient thoughts whirling around a center of fear….Worry is like a rocking chair: it keeps you moving but doesn’t get you anywhere.”
Despite living through horrors we can only imagine, she found peace in their midst. She placed her fears at the feet of one much stronger than herself. She forgave the unforgivable. She became a beacon of hope and love to her fellow prisoners.
“There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.”
When we attempt to fill our hearts with love, with gratitude, with optimism – and get busy in sharing those feelings with others – our fears have nowhere to rest their heads. We have to be willing to let go of our worry, to have faith they will be caught by someone much more capable of handling them. Someone that sees the end from the beginning.
“Hold everything in your hands lightly, otherwise it hurts when God pries your fingers open.”
The next morning, after remembering Ten Boom’s example of strength, I woke up feeling lighter. I hope this feeling can remain with me. It is difficult to maintain faith in the face of crisis. It may seem uncaring and cold to not be consumed with torment in such times. But a soul in torment cannot be a light. We must always attempt to free ourselves from that which impedes us from accomplishing good. If we can trade worry for love our lives will be lighter. As it says in John, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment.” I am grateful for the example Corrie Ten Boom provides that such love is possible.
“Love is larger than the walls which shut it in.”
All quotes by Corrie Ten Boom
-For Christians and non Christians alike, I highly recommend the book The Hiding Place.
COVID-19 is enough to give even the most easy-going among us worry. This is a big deal, life has changed on a dime. It is not my intention to diminish the importance of this time or the tragic nature of it. I hope we are all doing what we can to stem the tide of this disease. However, we mothers need to stop and ask ourselves, “Are we reacting well to this crisis?”
Why is that so important – how could our reaction have any impact on a global pandemic? It is difficult to see how our emotional reactions may ripple beyond our homes, but our primary concern as mothers is for our children.
A Mother’s Eyes
“Life began with waking up and loving my mother’s face.”
They say the eyes are the window to the soul. But a Mother’s eyes are the window through which young children first see the world. Ours are the eyes they look to for reference. In them they see either safety or danger. Many of our children’s fears and anxieties can unfortunately be sourced from their parents’ emotional reactions. Dr. Peterson explains in the clip below the psychological concept of “referencing”. When a small child sees a mouse run across the room – – they look to their mother’s eyes, or any other adult in the room, to see what it means. If the mother starts screaming, they know- Mice are scary! These early childhood experiences can set in their minds like concrete – mouse scary – world dangerous.= Phobia. If the mother instead tempers her reaction and handles the situation as calmly as she can, the child does not see a mouse as a horrific threat and feels safe in their environment.
“A mother tells you what the mouse is, and her face doesn’t say Mouse – it says, Safe or Danger.”
We have a modern epidemic of anxiety. Where is this coming from? Anxiety, at its root, is about fear- fear of the unknown and lack of confidence in our ability to handle the unknown. If a child continually sees in their mother’s eyes the evidence of fear or uncertainty, they see the world as an unsafe place. This a recipe for an anxious child and teenager. This does not mean that every anxious child or adult is the product of their mother’s reactions. Some people just have highly neurotic personalities; some children have life challenges that are not easily overcome – no matter how stoic their mother may be. But tempering our reactions to difficulties can only help our children.
Outsourcing Emotional Stability
Even as adults, we tend to outsource our emotional responses to others. We simply mimic what others are doing. A few months ago at church, the fire alarm suddenly went off. I noticed that none of the adults in the room moved; instead they just looked at everyone else, trying to gauge what kind of action was appropriate. We were searching for the level of fear in other’s faces. Since no one got up quickly or acted frazzled, we all stayed calmly in our seats. Eventually it was confirmed that a child had pulled the alarm (and, of course, that child was mine!).
Here is another embarrassing confession. I inadvertently became one of those horrible panic buyers. About a month ago, in the very early stages of COVID-19, I went to Costco for my bi-weekly trip. I was surprised to see that everyone was getting multiple packs of toilet paper. I had no idea that this was the thing to do, and to be honest, I thought they were probably silly to do it. But I figured I had better buy some too. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. I’m not going to lie, now that all the stores are TP-less, I’m glad I did. When something unexpected happens, psychologically we don’t know how to react – so we react the way others do. This gives a lot of power to over-reactors. If one person has an inappropriate response – perhaps built-up because of childhood trauma or anxious parents – then they can start the chain-reaction of anxious and worried reactions. (I am not saying that is the case in the COVID crisis but simply a psychological observation).
“Part of what you are doing all the time is imitating other people. It’s mass imitation, and that is really a huge part of social structure, we are constantly imitating each other.”
It is sad to consider that in many childhood traumas, such as medical trauma, accidents, natural disasters, etc…, the reaction of the adults around the child can be more traumatic than the actual incident. Dr. Peter Levine and Maggie Kline, experts on childhood trauma, write,
“The importance of an adult’s calmness cannot be overemphasized. Your calmness is essential! When a child has been hurt or frightened, it is normal for the adult to feel somewhat shocked or scared, too. Because of your own fears and protective instincts, it is not uncommon to respond initially with anger, which can further frighten the child. The goal is to minimize – not compound – feelings of fright, shame, embarrassment, and guilt the child is likely to experience already. The best antidote is to respond to your own reactions first. Allow time for your own body responses to settle rather than scolding or running anxiously towards your child. Experiences with adult clients in therapy confirms that often the most frightening part of an incident experienced as a child was their parents reaction! The younger the child, the more he or she “read” the facial expression of their caregivers as a barometer of how serious the danger or injury is.”
Peter. A. Levine and Maggie Kline, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes
For example, let’s imagine a small child is climbing on some playground equipment and falls. She cries but is not hurt. An over-reactive mother may scoop her up and fuss over her – ensuring she is okay and reprimanding her for doing something dangerous. She keeps her close to her side or leaves the park. This child can learn from this that the world is dangerous and she is not capable of certain things.
Instead, the mother could calmly go to the child and assess if she is badly hurt, give her some physical comfort (immediate physical affection is important in mitigating trauma) and tell her to try again. The mother stays close until the child feels confident in the attempt. When she is successful, the mother praises her and slowly moves farther away. Eventually the child will have mastered the task and will have forgotten the fall. There is wisdom in the old cowboy adage to get back on that horse that bucks you off. At times our culture prioritizes safety as the ultimate virtue – but our civilization wouldn’t have gotten far if men and women had been unwilling to “get back on the horse”.
Mother’s must resist the impulse to “freak out”. This is difficult for those of us with passionate temperaments. I, for one, am quite enthusiastic and excitable. I happen to think it is wonderful to be passionate, it makes life an adventure. “Freaking out” over good things is great. When my husband got a promotion, I was jumping up and down. When my sister told me she was having another baby, I screamed. When I stood in front of Hagia Sophia, I gasped in amazement. This is part of amplifying the good, since we know negative tends to be more potent. But when times are tough, we need to turn down our “freak-out” dial.
A few weeks ago my seven-year old son threw a rock through the back windshield of a car sitting in a parking lot. It completely shattered – he has a strong arm. I was angry because I had just told him not to throw rocks. However, as I looked into his eyes, I saw that he was truly sorry, but unfortunately I saw something else – fear. Fear of his mother, of the harsh scolding he might receive. I really didn’t like seeing that in my sweet son’s eyes. I don’t want him to be afraid of his mother’s reaction. I literally bit my lip and calmly reprimanded him but did not go overboard. (I did not let him get away with disobedience. He is slowly working off his window-debt.)
The owner of the car, an older woman, was actually sitting in the car when my son threw the rock. She was extremely upset and shocked by the incident. She came out and began crying. I apologized profusely and promised we would pay for it all. It was fixed and paid for within 24 hours. She later called me and apologized for her emotional response. She said she didn’t know why she was so overwhelmed by it. (Perhaps she had an over-reactive mother:)
If children have a mother that is an over-reactor, they have two choices – either to join their mother in her reaction and develop anxiety and fear as a result- or to discount their mother’s reactions and choose not to share anything with her that might “set her off”. Often, we discover our children lie to us out of fear. We find something broken in the house and, upon interrogation, discover all our children are innocent. When they become teenagers, there are worse offenses to be hidden. One of the main motivations to lie is avoiding the reactions of the parents. Does that mean we can’t be upset when our children make bad choices? Of course we will be, and they must realize that their actions have consequences, including emotional reactions. However, we don’t want our over-reactions to keep our children from feeling safe speaking to us about things. One example is the modern plague of pornography. Children at younger and younger ages are being exposed to porn. This can be extremely destructive to young minds. However, when a young boy sees porn for the first time, he may feel shame and hide it from his parents. If his mother, through years of over-reaction, has convinced him that she is not “safe” – if she becomes angry or disappointed in him for small offenses – he is much less likely to share the experience with her. Then his shame and deceit will continue, for fear of what the parents will think of him. This is the road of addiction. (I hope to do a longer post on teaching and preparing kids for the dangers of pornography.)*
Discussing COVID-19 with Kids
It is important that we don’t over-react to the current crisis in front of our children. In extreme cases this could cause the development of phobias or generalized anxiety in them. We don’t need to lie to our children. However, we must consider the age and maturity of our children when discussing difficulties. We also can’t trust that the voices they hear on the news or from friends will be stabilizing messages. Dr. Levine gives some good advice about how to talk to our kids about fearful events:
“Because the media uses graphic fear as a selling point, it is important to minimize children’s TV news exposure – particularly during dinner and before bedtime. Of course, it is best to watch the news after they are asleep. Kids three to five years of age may ask questions about things that they have heard or seen on TV. At these ages, children are beginning to be able to put feelings into words and you can let them know that it is okay to have these feelings….(it may be helpful to tell) stories where the hero/heroine has overcome difficult situations and been made stronger by meeting and mastering an ordeal.
For older children, six to twelve years of age, more direct discussions can be held. It may be important to find out where they got their information and what their specific fears are. Then you can have the family brainstorm ideas for things that they can do to help the people who have been affected…Mobilizing helpful activity, rather than being a spectator, can make a big difference.”
Peter. A. Levine and Maggie Kline, Trauma Through a Child’s Eyes
It is our reaction to this crisis that will do the most towards stabilizing our children. We can look for the rays of hope on the horizon – rather than the dark predictions or negative takes. If we feel our children are mature enough to discuss some of the difficult facts of the virus, ask them how they can help make this time easier and more productive. Rather than focusing on death tolls or worries about transmission. Teach them how properly washing hands or wearing face masks can help prevent contraction and spread. Talk to them hopefully about the future – if you find yourself unable to see the hope – seek out positive voices, pray to God for peace, and rely on stress-relievers such as outdoor walks. As they see us facing the crisis with faith and problem-solving, they feel safe. The whole experience can make us all more resilient. Our children can get through this – guided by the hope in their mother’s eyes.
“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.”
P.S. I would greatly appreciate any shares/tweets/emails of this article to those who may benefit. Thank you so much for your support and Good Luck out there – or “in” there!
“Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey (evil). What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of (evil). The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination.
What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.”
-G.K. Chesterton (The Red Angel)
“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Albert Einstein