Updated: Apr 13
I'd just read Roald Dahl's 'The Witches', and I wanted to be a mouse trainer. But I didn't have any mice. Necessity they say, is the Mother of invention- I made a mouse trap. I picked out the raisins from my breakfast muesli as bait- and I scampered into the woods. I made a hole in the ground with a spoon- about a foot deep, but narrow. Then I covered the hole with leaves and left a trail of raisins. Everyday for a week I rushed to my mouse catcher- excited and certain that my plan was brilliant. But each day I was disappointed. My raisins didn't budge. No mice took the bait. Fed up- and disappointed- I abandoned the project. I stopped checking my hole. A few weeks passed- curiosity drew me back. To my amazement the raisins were gone- the leaves had fallen! And at the bottom of the hole was a little mouse. But he was dead- dead because I hadn't checked my trap.
I was gutted- heartbroken- and shocked. This wasn't my plan. It wasn't meant to be this way. I'd wanted a pet mouse. I was going to be a mouse trainer. Instead I was a mouse murderer. I felt guilty, sad, and disappointed all at once. I wished that I'd checked the hole, and not given up. I'd wanted a mouse friend- but everything was ruined. I sobbed my 9 year old heart out: "Why was life so unfair?"
Disappointment, frustration and heart-break are normal parts of childhood. To grow through childhood is to understand that loss and frustration are part of the deal- the deal me make with life. This is known by every child who has wept over the dead body of a beloved pet. My daughter Freya had a hamster- she cleaned his cage, fed him and loved him- and then one day accidentally sat him- squashing him dead. She cried, she felt guilty- and in the process her heart grew bigger. She touched life. She understood: loss, responsibility, care, disappointment. How else can children grow wise- if not through touching loss and regret?
And yet often as parents we want to protect our children- to insulate them from the realities of life- we hover around them- worried by every loss and upset. When I was a school teacher I put on lots of plays. Children said what parts they wanted- and I made lists- I struggled- to who should I give the lead part? Who would I make Joan of Arc, Columbus or Romeo? For every thrilled child, 5 would be disappointed. 5 didn't get picked- 5 didn't get to be stars. And when parents phoned me- explaining why their child was upset- and why he or she deserved the part- and why it wasn't fair- I sighed inwardly- it was the season of high drama. Occurring backstage, and with the parents. Children pick themselves up, shake off the dust and move on- but parents can hang on to upsets and frustrations for years.
Because we love our children, and we don't want them to suffer. But when we pounce on every upset- we smother our child's experience. And in the process we rob them of resilience- resilience that grows from allowing loss, regret and disappointment into the heart. Neglect is a word that is bandied about too much. A child needs food, shelter and love- yes- but that doesn't mean our child always gets picked, or always gets to be a star. Sometimes things go wrong- and our children grow stronger through these times.
There's a Buddhist story that's intrigued me for years. A mother loses her child, and is overcome with grief- a madness falls on her. As parents we'd do anything for our children- and this is a kind of madness. When it comes on us- we stop seeing sense- explanations and reason become irrelevant. This is what happened to the woman. Her child died, and she went mad. She heard that a holy man, the Buddha could perform miracles. She took her child to the Buddha and said: "my child is dead- can you bring him back to life?" The Buddha, understanding the woman's' madness said. "If you can bring me a mustard seed from a house that has not known loss, I can bring your son back to life." With re-newed hope the woman went from door to door, asking: "has anybody died in this house?" She went from house to house- and wherever she went it was the same. Every house had know death, loss. and disappointment. The woman woke up from her madness- she accepted her great pain- her intolerably grief. The Buddhists believe the woman, called Kisa Gotami became enlightened. Her story is remembered and loved by millions.