Lessons from Nursery School

“We are free to choose our actions, but we are not free to choose the consequences of these actions.”
― Stephen R. Covey

 

There is a game category on a popular NPR show called, “Things I would have learned in school if I had been paying attention.” It is sometimes disconcerting to hear answers to those questions which would seem to indicate that maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention.

My grand-daughter, Anna Grace, has begun her school career by attending a nursery school class for three-year-olds. It seems to me that the main purpose at that early age is to begin to tame the savage impulses and get the children to cooperate in a group. Not being the most compliant soul you ever met, she has had some lessons to learn, some more difficult than others.

The first was that her teacher frowned on her merrily racing away to the far corner of the playground when the class lined up to go inside from recess, and then dashing away as the teacher came after her in hot pursuit. (And since it was fall in the South, I’m sure it literally was hot pursuit). Another lesson was that it is not permissible to give a girl a shove, even if she did push you first. And it also isn’t okay to jump in line ahead of someone even when you say “excuse me” before you elbow them out of your way.

Her teachers use a method that I admire, which is to encourage the children to think about their actions and slow down the automatic impulses. They ask, “Do you think that was a good decision?” And the child has time to consider that they DID make a choice and what the outcome of that choice was. Tying together behavior and consequences…something that continues to be a life-long challenge for some.

The other day Anna Grace and her mom were going to take the dog out for his morning walk, and she wanted to bring Scout, a stuffed dog along. As they went through the neighborhood, Anna Grace asked to hold Mudslide, the greyhound’s leash. Her mom said that would be okay until they got to the end of the sidewalk and then she would take the leash back, because the street was nearby.

They proceeded to the end of the sidewalk, her mother took the leash back, and Anna Grace began to protest. She was clearly not ready to give up the leash. When her mother insisted, she started to cry and yell, and threw Scout down on the ground and stomped a few steps away.

Her mother (calmly), “Pick up Scout and come on.”

A.G. (yelling), “No, Mommy! I am so mad at you! YOU pick him up!”

Her mother scoops up Scout, Anna Grace and marches them and Mudslide back to the house and informs Anna Grace that she will have a time out. They get inside, Anna Grace still yelling, and she is deposited on the stairs in her time-out place to get herself collected.

Her mother asks, “Do you think that what you did out there was a good decision?”

Anna Grace (with renewed fury), “I am still so MAD at you Mommy!  I don’t WANT to make decisions!”

When I heard this story I chuckled but could understand her sentiments.  I don’t always like making decisions either. Or more to the point, I don’t like having to be accountable and deal with all the consequences of those decisions!

But one thing that I learned in school (and in the “School of Life”) is that we indeed are responsible for the consequences that we set in motion with our decisions, whether we thought about them in advance, or even intended them, or not.

And, like any three or four year old, most of those decisions are decided on the basis of our emotions. In many cases, our rational thinking is brought in later to justify or explain why we made that choice, after the fact. You can be sure that the red convertible being shown by the model in the mini skirt is not being purchased primarily for its fuel economy!

Or watch a home shopping channel for 15 minutes if you want to see the hypnotic emotional spell being cast over viewers who have their credit cards out to purchase items that suddenly they “need” but would never have thought of before sitting down to watch.

Everyone has likely had the experience of saying something in an argument that they later regret or felt embarrassed by. Who hasn’t regretted making a callous remark about someone or to someone who didn’t deserve the unkindness?

When we are stressed we are especially prone to make poor decisions. We are less likely to think things through, and more likely to strike out or act out on angry or desperate impulses. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are responsible and as such, need to make amends or clean up the mess.  And being human, we can have the grace to forgive someone else as well as ourselves.

Perhaps it is from the perspective of age that it occurred to me the other day that our lives are a sum total of the decisions that we have made. True, sometimes events happen to us that we cannot control. I’m not suggesting that we are to blame (ugly word, I think) for everything that happens. But even in those difficult or impossible to control circumstances and events, we go on making decisions about what to do and eventually, what those events mean to us.

Some people are amazingly resilient; they recover and live rich and full lives. Others become embittered or apathetic and give up or live reduced lives. Whichever path we choose, we ultimately are responsible for what we have made of the talents and resources we are given.

If you are not happy with yours, I recommend that you work on forgiveness and free yourself to change your life in ways that are meaningful and pleasing to you. After all, the choices really are in your hands.

“I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions.”
~Stephen Covey~

The Bitter Bank

“You can’t have a better tomorrow if you’re thinking about yesterday all the time.”
~Charles F. Kettering~

Joan was described by her family members as someone who never forgot a thing that was ever done to her.  If harsh words were spoken during an argument, Joan could recite what offended her years later.  Her brother argued with her during the last election, and Joan still wasn’t speaking to him. Joan was certain that her mother had disliked her and treated her siblings much better, and she admitted that she experienced frequent bouts of depression as she replayed scenes that had been particularly painful to her.  Her husband had forgotten her birthday one year and she would berate him for it when they argued, which was getting to be more frequent. He had sincerely apologized to Joan, but even though she said she accepted it, she still brought the incident up.

Joan has a Bitter Bank, and her account is quite full.

Do you? Many people have a large catalogue of past hurts and painful experiences that they drag around with them. Some are more than willing to tell you about them. Some wear them like a badge of identity. And then some are very quiet about their “Bitter Bank balance,” even though they are preoccupied by it. You may recognize these folks for their chronically unhappy or angry demeanor.

Some other signs of a full Bitter Bank may be a frequent use of sarcasm, hiding behind humor while delivering a verbal knife through the ribs to someone else; frequent sighing; passive aggressive behavior such as “forgetting” appointments  or agreements with others; frequent and inappropriate references to the painful past; arguments about the same themes that never get resolved; self destructive habits or relationships that repeat the same patterns over and over again; repeated “hobby horse” rants that go on and on about the same theme. As you may guess, it is common for Bitter Bank account holders to suffer from depression, or anxiety as well as strained and broken relationships.

If you recognize yourself as a Bitter Bank owner, please read on.  This is not just unpleasant for you and for the relationships in your life. Holding onto bitterness is hazardous to your health!

Have you noticed how much time and attention you are giving to these resentful thoughts and scenarios?  If you’re waking up in the night and recounting your grudges and grievances, then it’s too much. If you hear yourself complaining frequently about being treated badly or of past abuses, it is taking up a lot of space in your head!  If you have emotional replays in your mind of “what I SHOULD have said or done, then it’s too much.

Once I was approached by a salesperson that was representing a rehab facility and introduced himself as a childhood sex abuse survivor.  I was shocked that such a personal and painful disclosure was the first thing he told me about himself.

And recently on a social media site I was contacted by a woman whose entire online identity is build around the experience of her husband cheating on her. Nothing like making your wounds into a name tag.

The danger of all this negative focus is that it keeps reinforcing to yourself and to others that you are a helpless victim.  Victims have no power, no responsibility and no real impetus to change anything. What happened to them is someone else’s fault, and the more we hammer the point and relive the painful occurrences and repeat our beliefs that this SHOULD NOT HAVE HAPPENED, the more solidly we believe ourselves to be victims. This practice will fill your Bitter Bank, and harm your life.

What to do? Denying your pain is not the answer. You do need to acknowledge what happened and to allow yourself to feel the emotion connected with it.  In other words you need to let the feelings be as big as they are. Notice in the front of your body (not your head and extremities) where the emotion registers.  Is your throat tight? Is there a lump? Is your chest heavy or tight? Does your stomach have a knot? Or does your abdomen feel tight?

Focus on that spot, and breathe in through your mouth.  As you exhale allow your body to relax if you can. Continue breathing and give yourself permission to feel it fully by asking “Can I feel this fully?”  You may find yourself thinking, “Hell no!” which is okay.  Don’t resist it or “try to get rid of it.” Acknowledge the feeling and continue to breathe. Ask “Could I release it?” If your answer to that is NO, that’s okay. Just continue to breathe and let it be.

As you repeat the exercise, the answer to “Can I release it?” will be followed by “If not now, then when?”  Sooner or later, you will give yourself permission to release it. That does not mean that you are denying what happened.  It just means that you are willing to release your tension and stress about what happened. This is a variation on a well-known program called The Sedona Method.

Another approach, which I frequently reference, is The Tapping Solution.  It is very effective in releasing negative emotions and clearing the way for positive change in your life.

You are ready to shift your focus from what has wounded you to something else.  I suggest a second practice that will aid you in improving your health and happiness. And that is to focus on gratitude by writing a gratitude list, at least one time a day.  It sounds simple, and it is.  Nevertheless, naming the things that you appreciate and are grateful for has been shown to have great benefits. Don’t forget to include yourself on that list!

Emptying your Bitter Bank is the first step in the process of forgiveness, about which we will be writing future blog posts. Often forgiveness is considered a spiritual matter, and it is. But in a holistic sense, it also concerns us psychologically and physically. When we learn to practice it, our health and happiness take a big turn for the better!