This spring he had an unexpected asthma-like attack. I was calm. I was prepared. I had plenty of medicine. I sat him down in a comfy chair with his teenage sister to watch over him and went to get the nebulizer. All was well. Until I couldn’t find it.
After five minutes of looking and listening to my son wheeze I started to panic. I got my husband to help look. For another ten minutes we ransacked closets and cupboards. We opened up the storage area in the crawlspace. We reached under beds.
I called my sister, and then my parents, to see if I’d ever taken the nebulizer to their homes and forgotten to bring it back No. And then my panic grew into a full-fledged temper tantrum. What was I going to do for my son? Was I so incompetent a mother, did I keep such a disorderly home that I would have to resort to an expensive ER visit even though we supposedly had everything we needed right here? Feeling fearful and anxious, I hurtled my cell phone across the room. It hit the wall and came apart.
My counselor keeps a particular question up on his whiteboard for everyone who comes to see him. It asks, “When what I value is threatened, I ______________.”
The answer for me is easy. I get frustrated and angry. I go on the offensive. I think up plans to protect what I value.
The list of what I value is very, very long. It includes things like simple pleasures, good causes, generosity toward others, and intellectual stimulation. But a large portion of what I value falls into the category of things that make me feel secure: love in my home, locks on my doors, and money in the bank. I also value approval, accomplishment, and a clear sense of purpose. I like order. I like control. I like knowing what tomorrow will hold, no unpleasant surprises please.
I value the ability to anticipate my family’s needs. I like to have what they need when they need it.
All’s well, until it’s not. And then I feel unmoored, unsheltered, unsafe. And I get mad. I try to grab my security back. I make strange, unreasonable lists of what I must accomplish. I run around like a chicken with her head cut off. Sometimes I yell. I complain about how hard things are. I throw cell phones.
In short, I do things I shouldn’t do.
The characters in my novel Afloat all find their values under attack when personal crises—and then more epic disasters—strip them of the things that make them feel secure. Single mom Danielle fears for her son’s future, so she sets aside wisdom for the sake of money:
Tony silenced Danielle’s apology with a kiss of his own, changing in an instant everything about their relationship except the thing that mattered most: Danielle did not love Tony the way a lover ought to.
But she didn’t dare say so. Pretending to love him was a very small price to pay for her son’s financial security. An insignificant price. Only a fool would decline generosity like Tony’s. In time, she told herself, she would grow to love him for real.
Her grasping for security, though well-intentioned, has terrible consequences.
Another man frantic to reach his family accidentally kills someone.
And one desperate to protect his reputation resorts to murder, then puts a woman and her two children in harm’s way.
I destroyed my cell phone in such a way that its data was irretrievable. I had to buy a new phone and rebuild the contacts from ground zero.
Worse was that I fed my insecurity and became completely distracted by the crisis. I took my eyes off of a simple truth: We did have everything we needed to help my son, even if that meant nearby medical assistance. Just because the real solution didn’t look like the one in my mind didn’t mean I needed to freak out, as my much more sane family demonstrated.
While I came undone, my daughter and husband kept their heads. They fetched an inhaler and mask attachment I’d forgotten we had. Within seconds, he was breathing more comfortably. And not too long after that, my tenacious husband found the nebulizer in an empty computer box buried in a spare closet.
All was well, even though it wasn’t. Do you see what I’m saying?
This is what I’m trying to remember when the pressure mounts and it feels like everything I value is being dragged out of reach. I’ll make things worse if I start doing things I’m not supposed to do. (Thank God for loved ones who save us from ourselves.) “Keep calm and carry on” has become something of a trendy joke, but I think the original idea—developed for British civilians in the throes of World War II—is more than just good advice.
When what you value is threatened, how do you cope?