It had been a great day. A day off of work, uneventful and filled with nothing but sunlight, a good audiobook and an extended walk with my dog. And it was a Friday.
Friday nights are usually ones of celebration. The marking of the end of the work and school week with pizza and a movie, as we consider what possibilities the weekend might have in store. This weekend had seemed like an especially long time coming.
But this Friday felt off from the moment I stepped through the door. Each child seemed both agitated, annoyed and simultaneously incapable of leaving each other alone.
By the time we moved to the couch to start the movie, each seemed completely ignorant to the borders of their designated couch cushions, their limbs spilling over their respective area, arms draped across siblings heads or feet jutted into one another’s sides.
It was the general restless energy that always seems to result in sibling wrestling (or it’s more accurate nomenclature, “wrastling”).
Of course, couch wrestling only ever ends one of two ways—when the parents shut it down or in tears. It was to be tears this Friday, as the goofing around became violent and resulted in my boy crying out and repeatedly punching an arm that had held him too long.
I ordered him away from the chaos of the couch to the hallway. To tell him that he needs to be careful of how he acts when he’s angry, about how he can’t physically lash out when he’s upset and about how he was growing, and those spindly limbs would soon be thicker and stronger.
Those punching fists could start to do some real damage soon and he needed to be in control of them. But it was no good, his heart was racing, his face was flushed and he wasn’t hearing any of it.
A wiser person might have considered the emotional state of his audience and the ever-growing impatience and anger inside myself. Unfortunately, I did not. And so, in moments he was yelling, and unexpectedly, so was I.
There’s 30 years between us but both of us were shouting at the top of our lungs at each other in our narrow hallway.
My partner recognized that I had lost all semblance of control and quickly tagged me out to cool off on the patio, but the night was ruined. After that moment, all the serene beauty of the day evaporated, as did the wide open possibility of the weekend before me. Gone, in an instant.
The lesson was a little too on point. I was telling my son we need to be careful in our anger – mere seconds before I simultaneously made my point and lost all credibility.
It was a big failure, one that betrayed who I wanted to be, and revealed something deep inside myself.
I’m always embarrassed for those who can’t hold their emotions together in public—the couple that doesn’t mind if the neighbours hear them yelling at each other on the patio, the hothead in the car behind you who lays on the horn and flips you the bird for driving the speed limit or slowing down for a yellow light, the restaurant patron who needs to berate the waitstaff for the food taking so long at lunch hour. These have always looked to me like weakness.
It’s not strength that caused me to raise me to engage in a yelling match with my son, it was weakness. The need to be powerful, heard and (seemingly) in control. It’s strange, you puff up and yell to feel bigger, but the moment after you know that you are smaller than ever before.
The most bewildering thing about the outburst was that immediately before it, I thought I was about to engage in some next level, judo move parenting. I was going to remain calm and collected in the face of chaos. I was going to take advantage of this incredible teaching moment.
I thought I was further along than I was.
I had been a student of compassionate parenting and self-regulation for a long time. We’re always talking with our friends about how to be better parents. I felt like I had been listening to the right people and reading the right things for years, but if ever I was beginning to believe the delusion that I had reached some plateau, some new level of enlightenment and wisdom, my outburst that Friday cured me of that pretty quickly. Because all the big ideas in the world don’t have the least bit of value if you can’t take them home with you.
The only thing worse than the person who flips you the bird as they pass you, is seeing their bumper sticker promoting tolerance (or unity). The only thing worse than the person laying into their waitstaff is that assailant being a spiritual guru or church elder. I’ve always noted the pastor who leads a group of hundreds at church and whose immediate family resents him at home. The therapist who can engage thoughtfully with anyone, as long as they aren’t family.
They say that we often show the greatest disdain for others when they exhibit our own weaknesses. When my conversation devolved to a yelling match with my kid, it revealed both what little control I actually have, and the fraudulence of my enlightenment.
But enlightenment is a strange term.
We may think of it as waking up, becoming woke, reaching that next spiritual or conscious level. But taken literally, to enlighten simply means to have a light cast on something. To reveal the truth of a matter. To see what actually is.
Having a yelling match with your child does not sound like enlightenment. But it absolutely is. If we have any desire to learn, grow, “wake up” or become “enlightened”, we had best prepare for the possibility that we will not like what it illuminates in our self. Truly knowing yourself includes the good, the bad and the ugly. Because it’s all in there.
We can ignore those dark and angry and embarrassing places inside of us, but that’s not enlightenment, that’s just posturing and repressing. And posturing and repression may look good on the outside, but it certainly won’t bring us any peace.
And that’s the goal, right? Fewer yelling matches with our kids? Less taking it out on the waiter? Less road rage? “Enlightenment,” “waking up,” “evolution,” these are all grand and idealistic terms, but working them out is endlessly practical.
After our blowout, when we had both cooled down, I sat my son down next to me, held him tight and asked him to forgive me for losing my temper. Then, in a slightly more enlightened context, I tried once again to discuss the importance of controlling our behaviour when we’re angry.
It doesn’t negate everything that came before it, but it was a nice moment.
In the days and weeks that followed, I’ve been thankful that our closest relationships are cumulative. The strength of my relationship with my son is not absolved by one misstep, any more than it is secured by one success.
So it is with our own enlightenment. It’s less our arrival and more our continual, staggered march forward. It is a long obedience in the same direction. It of course includes our successes, but it graciously includes our failures as well.
This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.