Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Finding the Good

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began; 
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
—William Wordsworth, 1802


Becoming a parent opens up windows of insight into our own childhoods.Whether your childhood was a happy one, or fraught with anxiety, as a parent you are allowed the ultimate do-over—and I'm not talking about the ability to finally justify buying the Barbie Dream House, complete with all accessories. When we have a child, we often vow to be better Moms and Dads than our parents were—even if we had great ones. Having a child often allows us to right wrongs and heal old wounds because, in raising our children, we are transported into childhood along with them. 
   But there's a lot more to it than nostalgia. Actually, neurology comes into play. The brain stores emotional memories, which erode grooves in our minds. From earliest childhood, we lay down tracks for how we perceive the world and record the emotions evoked by that perception. As adults, we play that record (or DVD) over and over again as we experience events that occur in our lives. When someone disappoints us as adults, we set down the needle on the exact spot where we experienced similar disappointment in childhood and play that familiar tune. Of course, many times those tunes are way off key, and they resonate very bad melodies in our heads, so we react to the situation much as we did when we were children, and that's probably not going to be a very compassionate melody. 
   I think the holiday season can be particularly difficult because, by it's very nature, it's often filled with strong memories and expectations from childhood. In other words, there were a lot of unharmonious grooves worn during Christmas' Past. 
   For example, last week I discovered I wasn't invited to a neighbor's Christmas party, and my mind immediate went back to second grade when Julie Kreth threw a party and didn't invite me. That was forty years ago, but I still distinctly remember the sting of being left out, the sorrow at the discovery of being snubbed, and the feelings of inadequacy that Julie didn't like me enough to include me. I can get myself quite worked up over it today—if I let myself. But with my new-found parenting eyes, I realize that Julie's parents may have limited her guest list. My omission for that list may not have been my friend's doing at all. Maybe I didn't rank in her top six best friends at the time, but that didn't mean I was a total outcast, which was the way my seven-year-old brain laid down the track. So this week, when I didn't make the Christmas party cut, I took in the knowledge that my neighbors have their own reasons for not including me—and these reasons have nothing to do with how much they value me as a friend. Sure I could play it up in my head that I'm being ostracized and make myself miserable, but rationally I know my neighbors like me and they are probably entertaining a group friends from work, who I wouldn't even know. I could create a lot of mental anguish if I let myself return to that old groove and play the all-time hit Poor Me, I've Been Left Out Again over and over in my head; or I can let those feeling go and, in effect, record over the old hurt with my new rationale.
   In the excellent book Buddha's Brain, Rick Hanson, PH.D. and Richard Mendius, MD, contend that by becoming aware of past hurt and its root in our psyche, we can circumvent dredging up pain by replacing those feelings with new, revisionist thinking. We can, in effect, rewire our childhood brains with our grown-up understanding of life and fresh perspective. One simple way to rewire the brain is to find the good in any given situation. Here's how it might play out.
 So I didn't get invited to the party, no problem. It's not a personal slight and now I can have the evening to relax and play cards with my son. Maybe I'll even tell him about the time I wasn't invited to Julie's party when I was his age, and how I know now that it was no big deal. And perhaps he'll handle that situation better than I did when he doesn't make the guest list for some future grade school soiree. 
   There is good to find in any circumstance. Don't believe me? Give it a try. Yes, it's the old sentiment of seeing the cup half-full; and it's not bogus. When you think of people around you who are happy and positive most of the time, it's because they are optimistic and choosing to find the good. The personal benefit of finding the good is two-fold: It provides immediate relief from potential anxieties; and it burns a new track over the old negative childhood response. For parents of young children, there's a third benefit as well: You can teach your kids this very valuable ability and thereby help them to set down good grooves from the get-go. Unlike the longed-for Barbie Dream House that will eventually end up as landfill, finding the good is an enduring gift because, when your children become adults, they won't be pulled down by negative tunes when things go wrong. Instead, they'll be happy and humming along to their own greatest hits.

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