|Jack with a few of his favorite Domos.|
I knew where this conversation was heading. It was time for bed.
"No, I'm not," I replied. "I like the dark."
"I think it's scary," Jack said.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because it's dark, and I can't see."
I leaned over and switched off the lamp on Jack's bedside table. For a second, Jack's desk, chair, chest of drawers, and the Lego's heaped on Jack's desk, chair and chest of drawers were not visible. Only for a second. By merit of the night light in adjoining bathroom, the hallway light and the street light beyond his closed Roman shades, form quickly took recognizable shape again.
"Jack, it's never really dark," I said. "Not most places at least. We're surrounded by light."
My logic was sound, but the look on Jack's face—which was illuminated by the hall light—told me the conversation wasn't over yet.
"But it's still scary!" Jack said.
"Why is it scary?"
"Being in the dark makes me worry," Jack said.
Ha! I have to hand it to the kid, he doesn't give up easily. Having lost his battle with me about fear of darkness, Jack shifted to another topic: worry. He also knows that he is effectively staying his bedtime by engaging me in this type of conversation. What Mom could leave her child in the dark, scared and worried? Yes, he had me, and since I've been practicing Buddhism, the concept of no-worry is one of my favorite topics.
"Jack, there's never any reason to worry. Either you can do something about it, or you can't. Either way, worrying is a waste of time."
He looked at me blankly. So much for paraphrasing the Dalai Lama, "If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it's not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever." Even the DL's wisdom was not going to lull my son to sleep tonight.
"So, what are you worried about?" I asked.
Jack thought for a moment.
"What if the house catches on fire?"
Good one, I thought. How does this kid do this? How does he randomly hit upon the very concern that kept me staring at the ceiling when I was his age? Is it in his DNA?
When I was ten I was so afraid of fire, I wouldn't strike a match if my life depended upon it. (I'm sure that cost me a Girl Scout badge or two.) My parents' old furnace was the source of my late-night fears. When my father removed the metal access door to light the pilot, the flames that rose up reflected orange, blue and gold on the tile floor, giving the impression that the house was on fire.
Around that time, the local fire department came to my school and talked about creating an emergency escape plan in our homes. How would we get out safely, for example, if there was fire in a hallway, blocking our route to the front door?
Some nights, I lie awake drawing these plans over and over in my head, and then enacting them in my mind. I would crawl out my bedroom window and jump to the ground. It was only about an eight foot drop. Fortunately, I never had to enact my plan. My childhood home survived and all those nights of worrying were for naught. It occurred to me that it would be a good idea to go over an emergency escape plan with Jack, but now was not the time.
"See that little green light glowing on your ceiling?" I asked him. "That's the smoke detector. There's one of downstairs and one in each bedroom. If there's a fire in our house, we'd know about it as soon as there was smoke. Don't you remember how the toaster oven set off the one in my apartment?"
"Besides, the chance of our house catching fire is very slim. Why make something up to worry about?"
Jack shrugged. I didn't know the answer either and I hoped he maybe he did. Even when my life is going well, when I know the bills are paid, I'm at peace with my family and friends, and we are in good health, I can still conjure up worries. For Jack, worrying about the house catching fire was a way to delay bedtime. Do I use worry as a means of procrastination too? Do I worry about the future to avoid the present? Yes, yes I do.
I'm still not sure why I intentionally let my mind fixate on negative outcomes that have not—and will probably never—come to pass. In fact, researchers at University of Cincinnati found that 85% of the situations we worry about never come to pass.
Fortunately I have learned a way to stop my mind from reeling: gratitude. Listing all the good things that are present in my life doesn't remove the threat of future disaster, but it does shift my perspective toward what is real and tangible. I decided to try it out on Jack.
"Let's make a gratitude list. What are you grateful for, Jack?" I asked.
"Pandas, Domos, my iTouch, my friends, my family, Pip (the cat,) Jaws (the turtle,) my room ..."
The list went on for some time. Then he began to nod off.
"Good night, Jack," I whispered. "I love you."
"Love you too, Mom."