Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Great and Terrible Oz

One of my dark little secrets is that I love (LOVE) to read advice columns. I'm not sure where this guilty pleasure came from, but rare is the day where I do not read Dear Abby, Miss Manners and Carolyn Hax online. J makes fun of me for it, as I believe he should. In terms of productive use of my time, I believe that being a regular on advice columnists' message boards ranks up there with daily foot care maintenance. It's not that it's completely useless--it just doesn't need my attention every 24 hours.

However, my beloved advice columnists will often spark an interesting idea for me. This was the case yesterday. A woman wrote in to Carolyn Hax (check her out on The Washington Post website) saying she felt she had mis-handled a situation with her daughter by letting the little girl know about a brother who had been stillborn several years before the daughter was born. She was concerned about the little girl knowing the "secret," and that the girl was crying over situations in a Disney movie that reminded her of her brother. The mother wanted to protect her daughter from the negative emotions, and felt that she shouldn't have allowed her to watch the movie because it might remind her of the brother she never knew.

Strangely, I had just been thinking about situations like this earlier in the day. Now, I have the "Must Protect the CHILDREN!" gene just as much as the next waddling soon-to-be-mom. (I have found myself horrified and disgusted by advertisements geared toward children who could not possibly be savvy enough to understand the basics of persuasion). But when it comes to what the world dishes out, I'm not one who really wants to shield my child from everything bad.

On the surface, that sounds terrible. Of course I don't want anything horrible to happen to my child. Of course I will work to protect him from the nastiness of the world. But, and this is a big but, I don't want him to grow up thinking there is NO nastiness in the world.

I was raised by an eternal optimist. Often, during my angsty teenage years, I would hear the refrain "Everything is working out perfectly." This was exactly what I needed to hear when weathering high school relationships, high school disappointments, and the trauma of not quite being anything yet. Everything I went through at that time helped me to become the person I've grown up to be. Things were working out perfectly. But in 2000, when I was senior in college, a girl on my tiny campus of 1500 students was kidnapped and murdered. I asked my optimist how everything was working out perfectly for this girl. She had no answer for me.

In the decade since then, I have definitely changed how I view the world. That incident was the first indication I had that evil truly is a force in this world. I had refused to believe that in high school. I looked for the good in people, and believed in goodness above all else. I actually argued in an essay in high school that something like the Holocaust could never happen again, because human beings were too inherently good to allow the same mistake to happen twice. Like Pangloss, I believed that everything was working out for the best. But there is evil in the world, and it does no good to ignore it.

In fact, since I faced that ugly truth, I've found that I've been a happier person. Without evil, how can anyone appreciate good? Without the gift of death, how is life worth living?

Which brings me back to LO. I know that as a happy baby and toddler, I won't want him to feel the ugly side of the world. I won't want him to know sadness or despair or ugliness or pain. But they all exist, and completely protecting him from them is not something any parent could possibly do. I hope to teach him that the world is a great and terrible place. The fact that it is terrible should not take away his enjoyment of its greatness. The fact that people (and pets) you love will eventually pass away should not take away from your enjoyment of your time with them. Just as focusing too much on the positive can make you feel sucker-punched when the nastiness invades, so too can focusing too much on the negative (through overprotection) can keep you from enjoying what you have when you have it.

It will be a balance for me as a parent, between being honest with my child and still sheltering him within reason. I hope that he can learn to see the world for what it is, as I have. Now that I have accepted the fact that the world can be terrible, I am so much more grateful for my time in it.

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