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March 27, 2017

How a sitcom, a news clip, a tumble and a bad burn changed my life

Posted in: Main Page,News/Opinions

We all have tiny but profound moments that stay with us. Some people have a clear picture of of their wedding day or their first child’s birth. I, too, have those days locked in. But other, seemingly humdrum, everyday moments struck me like lightning and taught me a life lesson that has saved me truckloads of the kind of panic and distress most people view as unavoidable.

Here are 3 of my moments:

  • Watching an episode of a sitcom
  • Seeing a news clip about an English royal
  • Picking my kid up from a fall when she was little and a burn for me, soon after

Innocuous, common occurrences, right? Especially the last one: kids falling down. Kids are new to walking, after all! They fall constantly. That’s a pretty common occurrence. I’m being obtuse on the other two moments. They were world-level events, even if they went by unnoticed by the majority of people. The sitcom was The Ellen Show and the English royal was Princess Diana. All 3 of these scenes contained a paradigm shift for me. And in experiencing these shifts, I learned a crazy important skill called “reframing.”

The Ellen Show

Actor, writer, comedian Ellen Degeneres came out as gay on her sitcom. Officially, it was Ellen’s character who came out as gay, but we all knew her character was an allegory for her. My moment didn’t come from Ellen’s announcement. What struck me was her friends’ reactions.

I remember so clearly how much another character burst with excitement at her news. Sure, the other character was already out of the closet and his reaction would go on to be disregarded as not universally applicable, but in that moment I suddenly understood what the right reaction is to someone telling you they are gay (or any other oppressed position).

 

Later on, Ellen gets mixed reactions from the rest of her friends, who, it turns out, were betting on Ellen’s coming out. (The writers still managed this serious issue with good humor). The reactions were mostly positive, but it was the first friend’s excited screaming of “I’m so proud of you!” that hit me like a slap upside my head.

Until that moment, I had been accepting of the paradigm that someone’s coming out of the closet was an event to be mourned. Indeed, even Ellen’s friend warned her it would be hard to come clean to her friends. I was to deliver a solemn acknowledgement and empathetic ear. “It’s a hard life,” I’d heard other adults say when it came to this “choice.” When someone told you they were gay, hold their hand and say comforting words in tones reserved for funerals. Wrong! Be joyous! That show clicked the truth into place for me.

Princess Diana hugs AIDS patients in the hospital

This paradigm shift I share with the world. Many people remember Princess Diana putting her arms around dying patients who, at the time, were erroneously thought to be contagious-on-contact. AIDS had no treatment then and it was killing people in its epidemic wrath. But there was Princess Di on the news, touching patient after patient. These men were emaciated and covered with sores. She hugged them anyway.

I felt shame, then. I’d been caught up so easily in all the falsehoods and hysteria. Later in the 1990s when a friend and neighbor was dying of AIDS, I was not afraid to be near him, to kiss him on the cheek, or to give him a hug. And I wasn’t afraid of his partner either (who survived him). Princess Diana not only separated fact from fiction with one gesture, she personified grace. I wanted that grace.

Scraped knee

When kids are babies, you accommodate them. You kiss their boo-boos. You hug out their tears. Then one day, they pass a threshold at some point where, as parents, you begin to teach them to handle their bumps and bruises with stoic calm. Life is filled with adversity. You want them to know the difference between big deals and little deals.

My husband and I had been taking our Irish-American heritage’s approach to parenting through cuts and scrapes: SUCK IT UP. Our daughter was about three years old. We thought we were doing the right thing. We knew “coddling” and “sparing rods” were deserving of the most disdain one can reserve for parents.

I was in the midst of yelling the stoic canon I’d heard as a kid.  Our daughter had taken yet another bumpy fall down the stairs. Here was this little thing, a baby really, disoriented, hurt, crying and begging for comfort, and I was yelling. At a toddler. What was the logic? To brainwash her into thinking she was not hurt? To teach her not to trust her own senses?

Annoyance drained out of my body. Shame and a bit of desperation set in. I quickly scooped her up. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I know that hurt. I know that hurt. It’s OK. You’ll be OK.” I repeated myself as I rubbed her hair.

And get this – she recovered immediately. What would have been a fifteen minute upset was gone in a few seconds. My husband and I, perhaps even generations of parents before us, had been doing it all wrong. Maybe kids are never all that physically damaged. Maybe they simply want some sympathy, and to ground themselves again in safety.

I knew that if the children’s grandparents saw this new approach they would admonish us publicly. And they did. Multiple times. This draconian ethos hammers down on us all, especially on young parents and children. We fight it off every day. We fail sometimes. Sometimes we still deal out the “suck it up” card ourselves. But we try to keep those aces in the hole for when they will truly help, when our kid maybe needs 20 seconds of bravery.

Bad burn

One day, a few years after this, I burned myself badly. In an awkward effort to avoid my husband who was on the kitchen floor unloading groceries into an already-crowded refrigerator, I spilled boiling water from the microwave down my left leg. Despite wearing thick jeans, the spill resulted in 2nd degree burns (and a slight 3rd degree one) on my left thigh. My husband didn’t get up. Instead he breathed out through his nose a terse, annoyed dismissal and kept piling fruit in the crisper drawer. He got a stiff jaw like he did when the kids were upset about something they “shouldn’t” be. I didn’t go to Emergency Care because I feared inconveniencing him further.

My husband never did ask me about or help me with that burn. It was perhaps the worst burn I’d ever had in my life. I spent about 48 hours with ice packs on my leg. I had to get up in the night to change them as they defrosted. My skin came off in wide, ashen grafts as it healed. A scar where the skin scabbed up is still visible.

Crazy, right? To not get up and help someone who is scalded? But that’s what we were taught: “Suck it up! Don’t be careless. If you were paying attention, you wouldn’t be hurt.”

Parents act this way to assuage their own fears. When kids are hurt, we ache for them, and that’s uncomfortable. We think, if our kids are “tough,” we won’t feel so vulnerable. What I saw in my husband’s face that day was anger, yes, but I saw a twinge of fear. He’s not a monster, as most people aren’t monsters. We focus on trivial things. Our empathy and energy go wasted on distractions.

After these lessons, I work hard to counter my suck-it-up instincts. Delivering disdain to a child’s pain and fear, heck to anyone’s pain and fear, is to be avoided. How I was raised was wrong. These 3 moments had shed light on how wrong my learned tendencies were.

Reframing

The paradigm shifts in beliefs I experienced are the basis of something called “reframing.” Reframing is a technique that changes the context and restructures the placement of something in one’s world view. Instead of looking at “I’m gay!” as something to be mourned, I can see the news in a larger context of a person living an authentic life. Of course I would celebrate that! Finally, my friend’s time spent pretending and feeling alone is over. When I am told someone is transitioning from their born gender to their true one, I think, “YAY! you get to be who you are now!”

Seeing AIDS in a bigger context helped me get free of the prejudices and falsehoods surrounding the crisis. Seeing anger and hurt on my child’s and my husband’s faces taught me to lean in with love instead of turning my back with fear. A little empathy and acceptance goes 1000s and 1000s of kilometers farther than scolding does (yes, let’s switch to metric, too).

Once I learned the reframing technique, I started applying it everywhere. When I’m stuck behind a slowpoke driver, I think, “Well, he is saving me from speeding down this road, which I most certainly would do without this lovely reminder.” When someone is promoted over me (and this is a hard one because in tech it happened a lot. Because: sexism), I try to believe that other, better things are ahead for me. The world is a huge place and it is not this little office.

A younger version of myself would call this Polyanna-ing. I’d have said coating all ills with a sugary-sweet sauce is as bad as attacking it with anger and annoyance. Perhaps that’s true. But while reframing is a practice in applying a positive spin, it is not avoidance or denial. A reframe is to take the small picture and find its place in an even bigger world. Some people call this “getting perspective.”

To find a change in mindset, change the borders of the problem. Expand them or tighten them. If you find yourself reacting poorly to a situation, open up the timeline. Will it hurt you for the next ten minutes? Ten hours? Ten days? Ten months? Ten years? If you expect the hurt to go past ten hours or ten days, then stop panicking and start thinking up some solutions. If the discomfort will dissipate soon? Take a few deep breaths and wait it out. Tell yourself: “These things come and go.”

Sometimes big problems can only be dealt with on small scales. Even if I hadn’t been transformed by Princess Di’s actions, I still would have been very kind to my neighbor, because he wasn’t the world’s AIDS crisis. He was my neighbor. I would have looked at the very small part of a big picture. Perhaps without Diana’s lesson, I would have been more careful in touching my neighbor, but I still would have sat with him. My frame was two people, one suffering, one devastated to see it. If I’d blown the situation up in my head I would’ve acted like a cruel jerk.

Try it

Don’t dismiss pain. Don’t say, “This is no big deal.” That’s not how to reframe. A reframe would be, “Wow, this is upsetting. How will it affect things going forward? Do we have to change something right now or do we wait it out?” Do the Ten thing I described above (not my idea, btw. I stole that from some unknown internet place).

You can also say, “Yes! I see how that can be annoying! Let’s go do something else for now.” You can reframe for others as well as for yourself. Widen the lens or focus it in, whichever brings back feelings of confidence and safety in the moment. Once calm, strategies and plans can be created to address any longer-term problems.

Keep learning

I’m always learning. I’ll let you know what my next moment of clarity brings. I hope you have one today.


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