I was lying in Tay’s bed as we talked a bit before she hit the hay. The older she gets it’s easier for our conversation to get predictable with an anticipated litany of questions and answers.
“How was your day?”… “Good.”
“You doing good?”… “Yeah.”
“What did you do today?”… “Nothing much.”
“Anything happen at school?”… “Nope.”
“Well, it’s Friday tomorrow!”… “I know.”
Cue a few seconds of silence followed by me asking, “Did your mom pray for you yet or do you want me to pray for you?” (She can’t go to sleep unless one of us prays for her. It doesn’t matter what the prayer is, mind you, so long as we say ‘Dear Heavenly Father’ in the beginning and ‘In Jesus Name, Amen’ at the end. It’s part of her little bedtime ritual that eases her mind as she works through the formula of emotional calculus that relaxes her spirit so she can fall asleep.)
Alright, this is ok. All these interactions are fine—for a time.
But you can begin to tell when human interaction has turned into robotic transaction as if you’re doing automated banking. No need for a teller…it’s all about punching in key codes and passwords…no need for spirited spontaneity. I hate when anything human moves from meaningful to mechanical.
But something happened a couple nights ago that surprised me. I happened upon it by accident, but I think there something I stumbled upon that might be helpful to others. It happened in the middle of our little bedtime ritual and didn’t really start as a big deal.
One thing that Taylor does as we lay in bed talking is play with my hand that I hold up in the air. She has always done this since she was little. She will find whichever hand is closer to her, usually my left hand since my right arm is under her neck as she is laying on her back, and she will grab my fingers, turning my wedding ring, placing her palm up against my palm, draping her fingers in between mine, etc. I’m not sure what it is, but she is very tactile at bedtime and feels more comfortable carrying on with conversation when she is dilly-dallying with my hand. I love it…it’s one of those things that makes her unique.
While we were mindlessly flying through our Question and Answer marathon, something occurred to me while I looked at my hand as she was doing something that appeared like she was counting the tips of my fingers back and forth from my thumb to my pinky and vice versa. Remember, she’s talking to me while she’s doing this, but as I peered at her playing with my hand, I distinctly saw my 5 fingers.
Then a nothing/something hit me. I say nothing/something because when you have a harebrained idea, it might turn out to be a conversational cul-de-sac like many of my creative attempts to gin up something meaningful with my kids. (they make fun of me and I have many wounds I nurse regularly from them poking fun at my failed experiments with emotional/conversational connection…hahaha!)
Anyway…back to my hand.
For some reason I looked at my 5 fingers and decided to ask her 5 questions pointing to each of my digits for her to see so that she knew where we were at in the “question progression”. Tay is very linear. She wants to know where we’re at and where we’re going. It relaxes her to have that knowledge. So I pointed at my fingers and let the extemporaneous experiment begin…
“Tay, I want to ask you five questions about five words, OK?”
She looked at me stunned that I would veer off the automated autobahn we were cruisin’ down at breakneck speed. She knew we were heading into uncharted, unchartered territory, but responded with a hesitant, “Sure.”
“I’m going to point at my finger and ask you how things are going in regard to that one word I choose?” My mind was thinking about negative emotions or attributes that she may or may not be affected by. She stared at my thumb as I pursed my lips thinking about my first question. Here goes nothing…
“Have you been feeling fearful about anything lately?”
She thought for a second and swiftly responded, “uhhh…nope.”
“Not that I can think of….that’s been good.”
There were two things that went through my brain in a nanosecond. (I didn’t want to pause too long and create fear through the power of suggestion. I’m serious. This kid is sharp as a tack.) I acted like it didn’t phase me and proceeded to ask what I would call a “Thesaurus Follow Up Question” switching the key words with less alarming words that culturally lead to less alarming reactions.
“Ok, no fear…that’s awesome. What about worry…have you been worrying about anything?”
Bam…she burst with several things that were causing feelings of worry.
I was in the vault. You don’t get in the vault that often the older they get.
Who would have known that Fear and Worry could lead to two different responses? As she talked about areas of worry, she wasn’t aware that she was talking about areas of fear, but for some reason it felt less threatening to her to use that word instead of the other. She spoke of anxiety and worry and nervousness, but not fear. That’s fine for me, so long as we’re talking about the same core emotion using different synonyms. Words don’t matter to me as much as the emotions they are seeking to express. I knew we were talking about fear, but she didn’t, and it was all about a word choice. Semantics.
I pointed to my index finger for question #2 and she grabbed it like a newborn baby waiting for number 2 out of 5.
“Have you felt any bitterness towards anyone lately?”
Again, her response was almost instantaneous. “No, I don’t think so. No.”
I thought to myself, Either I have a saint for a child or she is scared of that word and what it would imply of her. I dug through my mental thesaurus and tried to think of a word that a 13 year old would wrestle with as it relates to bitterness. I asked a second question to follow up on the bitterness concept.
“Have you felt like anyone has annoyed you lately?”
It was like I pricked a water balloon. Emotional liquid burst all over the place as she described certain times, places, and people that were ‘getting on her nerves’. It was clear that she was storing up some ‘puss’ in these infected places, but would have never called it bitterness in her mind for fear that she would be “that person”. Or maybe, she just doesn’t comprehend what bitterness is at a core level. We talked about forgiveness and letting things go when you are even just let down, let alone intentionally hurt by something or someone. This was getting interesting.
I pointed at my middle finger and we laughed. (I maybe be a pastor, but I’m not a cultural clod!). She grabbed my finger calculating with her little brain that we were close to 3/5 of the way through this word problem. Her brain works like an old watch with every widget and gadget underneath perfectly synchronizing to make sure what you see on the outside keeps perfect time. She and anticipate my next question at this point probably predicting the word I’m going to pick for all I know…
“Do you feel like anything has made you feel angry lately?”
I’m not sure I completed my thought before she blurted out, “No, nothing.”
I was starting to figure this out at this point. It was like a game of Balderdash testing my vocabulary of synonyms to crack the code of my youngest daughter’s heart.
“You don’t feel frustrated by anything…who are you, Mother Teresa?”
She chuckled and said, “Well, yeah I feel frustrated by stuff. I didn’t know that’s what you meant.”
She went on to share the things that frustrate her in life and in our home and about herself that if you would just switch out the word frustrated and put in the word angry, you wouldn’t be embellishing the emotion whatsoever. It’s funny how frustration is often the safe word for anger and how at ease we are talking about our daily frustrations not identifying them as either teetering on anger or disguises for anger under the cloak of chronic irritation. It was clear that certain areas of anger were present, but the word anger couldn’t be used.
I won’t bore you with the rest of the conversation, but I wanted to tell you the other two words I asked about and the words I chose to substitute once I was stonewalled.
“Do you ever feel lonely?” --- “Nope.”
“Do you ever feel left out?” --- “Well sometimes I wonder about that. I see other people…”
“Do you ever feel jealous?” --- “I don’t think so.”
“Do you ever look at someone and wish you had their humor, personality, looks, vacation, shoes, test score, etc.” --- “Oh, I didn’t know that’s what you were asking…yeah, sometimes. It’s hard not to…”
I decided to stop with the fleshly fruits and to go through the fruits of the Spirit. Same thing. I would use words like Love, Joy, or Peace, and the response was short and sweet. I would use a synonym that mirrored the “Power Word” and the conversation warmed and softened into stories and feelings and thoughts.
I know this is dragging on, but I hope you’re aware that language is powerful. This doesn’t stop when you become an adult. We are allergic to certain words and their connotation and if someone point blank asked us about those words and how they manifest themselves in our life, we often just write it off as irrelevant.
We’re not full of rage, we just get ticked off at stuff.
We’re not full of lust, we just appreciate beauty as long as we’re not sleeping around.
We’re not full of bitterness, we just don’t ever want to see that person again.
We’re not full of hate, we just love to glory in that certain people’s failure.
We’re not full of fear, we just struggle with being controlling.
We’re not full of insecurity, we just constantly think about what people think.
We’re not full of jealousy, we just scroll and troll Facebook with simmering envy.
We’re not full of pride, we just are glad that we aren’t like other people who are clueless.
We are scared of certain “key words”. But if you grab a different synonym or think of a better metaphor to explain an emotion, most people are neck deep in the very thing that don’t think they are wrestling with. I’m not saying everything, but I will put my neck out there and say ‘most things’.
That night with Tay, my time of praying with and for her was so much deeper. I was praying for the condition of her heart based on what she shared. The atmosphere didn’t feel judgmental and she didn’t feel threatened like she was standing in front of the firing squad and being interrogated by Jack Bauer. In fact, she probably still doesn’t know she bore her soul to me because we didn’t talk about anger, bitterness, jealousy, or fear. Little does she know.
All I’m asking for you to do is ‘think twice’ when you’re talking to people. Move beyond the scary word or the goody-two-shoes word and look for another expression to describe the same thing. You can do this. We can do this.
And this matters. It saves lives.