When I was a little girl, I was afraid of my Grandma. It wasn’t just that she had a shrill voice and worked like a steam engine, it was that she was potentially volatile. She would shriek at my grandpa, but he just ignored her. She gave me quite a spanking once for smacking my sister accidentally (at least, I remember that it was accidental.) I loved going to her house with its woods and creek and rabbit hutches. I gave her a wide berth most of the time, and for the most part I escaped unsinged.
What made Grandma’s temper scary was it’s lack of boundary or predictability. It flashed quickly and burned out of control, though she was usually only verbally abusive. I can still remember, even though it’s been 40 years, the look in her eyes, how her temper wrangled her around like an old rag doll. I know perfectly well why biblical records describe angry people as possessed. They just don’t look alone behind their eyes. Just as the country song says so simply, I didn’t know why she had to be angry all the time.
When we grow up in an incendiary environment (as my poor grandmother did), we often lack the skill to build firebreaks and police potentially flammable experiences. My parents had their own explosive moments, but we had a wonderful mediating influence: the teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ that they made central to their lives in my youth. These truths provided valuable education in emotional processing that made my growing years different from my mother’s. Still, we all had our moments.
I can remember a handful of times as a parent when I wasn’t alone behind my eyes. It was sobering. (No, it was terrifying.) There was a wildness to it, an out-of-control burning that was strange and addicting and ugly. I was blessed to have a lot of support through the women I knew and loved and who mentored me, many without even knowing, and to learn tools to deal with crushing depression. When the heat turned up in my life, I had flame-proof structures: music that soothed my soul and reminded me of my values, coping behaviors discovered through study and practice, a sense of humor that rescued me from horriblizing every annoyance, resentment no longer burning without check.
I’ve often thought of the generational problems brought on by an absence of a mediating influence. Many of the inherited problems of poverty thrive in homes where these firebreaks don’t exist. Education, spirituality, supportive networks, sheer force of will – all provide frameworks for different people to prevent these flash fires or to douse them when they do burn. But even with these tools, a teaching home in which these coping behaviors are modeled is the single most important bequest to the next generation. I once heard a speaker say that the most important skill parents teach children is how to self-calm.
Today I read a very wise woman’s story. I think everyone should read it. You’ll walk away with real tools.
I now watch the next generation flame-proofing their home. My first grandchild had a difficult birth. Just after she was born her very short umbilical cord broke, having been wrapped around her foot for some months creating a weak spot. She was born in a water bath, so it was initially difficult to pinpoint where all the blood was. When we did, precious seconds after, she had lost some blood. Her Apgars were good and so was her bloodwork, so we thought she was okay. But perhaps because of that experience she was fractious in her first few months. (Perhaps that wasn’t the cause; it’s likely a matter of conjecture but it makes some sense to me). She terrified easily and they dealt with PURPLE crying. It was challenging.
My daughter has been amazing. She has taught her daughter to self-calm. She does not internalize her toddler’s temper based in fear nor does she give way to her own potential anxieties. The cycle is broken and the fire-spirit is banished. It has been a life-changing experience for everyone.
I wish my Grandma had had someone to help her calm, to brush a loving hand across her forehead when she was anxious, to help her see past her terrified moments. I wish there had been someone to help her reason through her hard times, fill her soul with nourishing hope, and love her unconditionally until she learned to love herself that way. She was an amazing woman. It would have added stability to her incredible self-sufficiency. I wish her anger hadn’t masked so much of who she was. I wish she had known the Jesus I know.
As I listened to a modern apostle speak about the power in homes, I knew he was right because I lived it. No success in all our therapy, in all our poverty alleviation, in all our programming or education, can compensate for failure at home – except the atonement of Jesus Christ. How much sorrow would be saved if we help our homes be a focus for Jesus Christ, flame-proofed and safe, preventing problems before the destructive fires break out, consuming us.
One day, no child will ever be afraid. It all starts at home.