For twenty-five years, I have stubbornly, persistently, doggedly pursued courage. I have consciously decided, over and over and over, that my children are at least as qualified as I am (and probably more so) to choose, evaluate, choose again, and live their lives. When they were learning to walk and suddenly fell, they looked up at me with a question on their faces. "Am I hurt?" I still do what I did then. My face always - always - no matter what shuddering or weeping I do in private - my face always answers back, "You're fine, honey. Just get up again." And then, trusting that they will get up again whenever they're ready, I turn my back and calmly resume my own business. Kids are smart. They know you didn't mean it if you worry after you've said you're not worried. You have to live your trust.This stubborn habit of a quarter of a century was easier at first. I'm glad I did a lot of babysitting when I was a girl. I got a lot of practice before I had to be the mom. I started babysitting for other families when I was just 10 years old. I've been in the Child Whisperer business for almost 40 years now. I know, when a tiny child falls the 10 or 12 inches to the floor or sidewalk, a bandaid or a reassuring hug will fix it. And, in fact, most children stop checking to see if they're hurt. They learn very quickly to ignore their fears and trust the next step. Usually.
I had one kid who took a damned long time to learn this. I thought he'd never figure out that being hurt once did not mean that the universe had become a malevolent place. If you fall off your bike, the bike is not out to get you. It is, in fact, entirely predictable - what happens on a bike follows the laws of physics, and these are laws a kid can learn only through experience.
Eventually, he figured it out. He was seventeen when he told me that he remembered all the times I had told him, "You're okay. Just get up again," and how angry he had been that I had refused to see the problem. At seventeen, he said, "But you were right. Really, all anyone has to do is just keep going for it until you get there." He was okay all along. All he had to do was get up again.
This is the stuff of parenting magazines. If you live in a cul-de-sac, or in an urban apartment, and if you home school or send your kids on a bus each weekday - if you buy jello at the grocery store and fuss about how long waiters take with your food at the TGI Friday's - then, "You're all right. Just get up again," makes some sense.
But what about now? What about the sick-making reality of my daughter's life now? She sees the statistics and gives the reports and knows how many more of her battalion are dead today. The guys whose vehicle crashed - and the ones who burned to death in their Stryker. This is her reality. Every day she wakes up (on the days preceded by a night's sleep) and she faces the new information. The new information is not happy. It's not safe. Another one of these guys died. August has been a bad month for American troops in Afghanistan.
Is she okay now? What do I say to her? How do I admit to the horror of her reality and still keep saying, "You're okay. Just get up again?" Is it even still true? For a person who does not and will not turn a deaf ear to the things all around her, is it still true?I know her. I know she feels every wrong thing about her own team. I know she sees every logical inconsistency and philosophical dysfunction. She also sees the people who live in the land she's visiting as people. She's a soldier who sees people. What can I possibly say?
I say this. I say, "You're okay. Just get up again." This will be what I say to my children for as long as I draw breath because it is always true. For a moment, it seems like you are not okay whenever you refuse to follow the laws of physics - or integrity. You're not okay if you argue with reality - or with honesty. It's no wonder soldiers have psychological wounds. Reality is incomprehensible yet denying it unhinges a man - or a woman.
Right now, I know she is okay. I know this because she admits reality. She rails at it and mourns it and still she does her job with efficiency every day. When she was learning to walk, she put one foot in front of the other, rarely toppled over, and chanted her own little baby mantra of, "Ca-foo. Ca-foo." Her whole life, she's been careful - or not. Cautious - or thrown caution to the wind to see what would happen. And she always figures it out. Every fall from her bike has been okay because bikes - and people - and even cultures and wars - obey their own laws. Falling teaches us how to get up again.
I could not do what she does every day. But she can. She's okay. I calmly turn and tend my own work, and I know that she's okay. She knows how to get up again.