The 10-year old I live with turns 11 tomorrow, or, as she called it, "prime." Tomorrow she turns prime. Tomorrow is also a school day though. But, today in the States is a national holiday, which meant she didn't have school on a Monday. As a result, we decided we'd do her birthday celebration today.
The truth is we don't know people well enough in our new locale to include anyone local in the intimacy of a birthday celebration, so we decided to have a day of just the two of us doing things she'd enjoy. We started by driving to the neighboring little town (only 10 minutes away) for brunch. The joke was we were going to have cake for breakfast and cake for dinner. So, after eating our brunch items, we finished with a triple chocolate torte.
We then drove to a toy store and found four rubber snakes that will be fashioned into a medusa headpiece for her "Rock and Roll Medusa" Halloween costume later this month. Then we decided to head to Boston to walk around in a city, and take a chance at finding a skirt she's been looking for to finish off a different costume. The area we live in is only small towns, so it can be hard to find specific items.
We walked around Boston, found the skirt, and took time in a cupcake shop where we each ate a Red Velvet cupcake as the dinner-time birthday cake. Then we drove back north to our own town. After arriving at home again we watched a show together to tie off the day before bed.
In the midst of all this it turned out she'd decided she wanted me to cut her hair so that she could start her 11th year with a brand new haircut for school. The thing was, I didn't know this, and by the time we made it home there wasn't time. So, I apologized and said it would have to wait till tomorrow. The trouble there, of course, is waiting till tomorrow means waiting till the end of her school day, thereby blowing her "start the new year" timing entirely. For the still-10 year old, this was a complete blow to her mood.
Within fifteen minutes the usually super insightful, well grounded kid that I'm used to had collapsed into crying and telling me we'd just had the worst day ever. I responded by telling her it was time to go to sleep, that I knew she'd feel better after, and good night. This escalated things temporarily, until I again walked out of the room thoroughly pissed, though staying calm, telling her I'd see her in the morning. By the end of this exchange I wanted time to myself to unwind again, and let go of her comment about it being the worst day ever, knowing she was just mouthing off in that moment. But, instead of getting that time to myself her crying shifted and she started calling to me again saying she just needed a hug, and she didn't want her 10th year to end without one.
In the face of a comment like that, there is nothing to do but be bigger than your anger and walk back out to go hold the crying one for a bit to help her feel better. Cause she's right. Ending your 10th year without a hug sucks.
So, I did it. Still angry, I focused on the rest of my feelings, which are worlds of affection for her, and walked back out to give her a hug and hold onto her for a bit. She finally calmed down again, and from what I can tell is now asleep.
Here's the thing though, I've realized that kind of moment is something a lot of people don't get enough practice with--that moment of HAVING TO BE bigger than your feelings for the sake of what's right, or for the sake of a desire that is bigger than the upset of the moment. I mean, any of us could get that practice. Life is certainly offering it all the time. But there are people I've known that seem instead to be victims to their feelings more often than not, acting because of how they feel--their heart got hard so they walked away in the middle of a difficult conversation (a friend told me a story like that one time), or they were embarrassed so instead of apologizing for something they avoided a person, or they were angry so they shut down to seeing how vulnerable some friend of theirs actually felt and yelled instead. Insert whatever variation of such behavior here--behavior that comes simply out of choosing to act out of ones feelings alone without sense of or commitment to values bigger than those feelings.
In the last year, through lots of conversations with the still-10 year old where we talk about how to manage our feelings and relationships in healthy ways, I've come to describe this process as "being bigger than our feelings" as "choosing for the sake of something more important than how upset we are."
Aristotle describes genuine friendship, or relationship with another, as occurring when two people desire for each other, and also act in such a way that reflects what is truly good for the other person. That is, each person is so virtuous they can (1) recognize the big picture of the other person's life, and (2) act in such a way as to support that big picture, even when it isn't exactly convenient, or conducive to whatever feelings might be there in the immediate. Hugging someone that is upset even when you're angry with them seems a good example of that sort of virtue.
I don't mean to claim that I am consistently such a virtuous person. I screw up all the time. Instead, I just want to recognize the importance of this sort of idea--choosing to act for the sake of something bigger than ourselves, and bigger than our feelings--for the sake of healthy relationships, and well-balanced lives. It can be so easy to make a mistake in the face of these moments--to feel upset and take it as a sign that walking away from the other person either in the immediate, or longer term, is the right thing to do. Our culture, it seems, often acts as though feeling happy, or feeling good is the continual goal. There certainly are times when it is necessary, or right, to walk away from a situation either to just calm down enough to behave well, or because that other person really isn't good for you. And being happy is surely a valued thing. In the midst of such understanding though it seems too that there are times when pushing a little harder to be big enough to act for the sake of making a situation better, and helping the other person suffering through a challenge is not only the right thing to do, but the thing that's going to help ones self too.
As a different sort of example, the still-ten year old and I talked through what activity she could start to practice through her 11th year as part of her overall birthday celebration. Because of what is available in the area we now live, and also because of her love for animals, we realized that taking horseback riding lessons would be that new activity. So, she has just started going once a week to learn how to ride a horse.
The thing about horseback riding is that it's frickin' scary. The horse is huge. When she's in trot she's bouncing you around everywhere, and it can be hard sometimes to balance and hang on. The other thing about it is it's cold. Living this much further north means there is already a chill in the air. The other thing about it is it's inconvenient--you have to brush the horse before you can ride her, you have to care for the tack after you ride her, and also clean her off again, and you've gotta walk around in mud and poop and horse pee while getting bothered by flies. All of that stuff is stuff no one would want to put up with, except that it's all part of this bigger goal of having time with the horse and getting better at riding her.
The truth is--this is the real reason I decided to go along with the still-10 year old taking horseback riding lessons for her 11th year--because doing so would be this great practice for exactly what we're talking about--being bigger than her various feelings of fear, or apprehension, or laziness, or anger, or insert-whatever-is-appropriate-and-likely-here. She wants to have time with animals. She loves this horse she's only just met, and she wants to get good at riding it. Doing that though means suffering through sore legs and gut muscles while she learns how to balance and deal with the trot. It means having to calm herself enough to tune into what the horse is doing whether the ten-year old is nervous, scared, angry, tired, or whatever. It also means having to clean up stuff she wouldn't have reason to touch otherwise. It means she gets to practice being bigger than the discomfort and the inconvenience, for the sake of her own larger interests, and for the sake of the horse itself too. Because all these things are integral to proper care for the animal she's developing an affection for. But they are also integral to her having a healthy ability to care for herself--learning that she has so much power she can choose what she wants for herself; that her freedom and ability to have a life she wants and enjoys actually comes from recognizing her various limitations of fear and apprehension and even laziness, and choosing to act in a way that shows she's bigger than them anyway.