Four year old children are predictably irrational. Their fixations, meltdowns, and obsessions frequently border on the bizarre. This is normal for them.
I consider myself to be in remission from anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders, but I find myself keenly attuned to symptoms in both myself and my kids. Part of being in remission, of course, involves periodic check-ups, and I do these almost sub-consciously now, evaluating myself for signs many times a day, and making small adjustments. There is the potential that my kids might one day exhibit signs of such disorders too, but since I’ve been in remission, I genuinely don’t worry about it. And though nature may dictate that they have a predisposition to it, nurture will argue against it since I no longer model anxious behaviors to them.
When a person doesn’t suffer from anxiety and obsessions, it can be hard to understand them in others. The anxieties are irrational, often seeming silly or ridiculous. From the outside, it seems absurd that a person would worry about such things at all, much less be reduced to a sniveling wretch rocking on the bathroom floor over them. Such is the nature of anxiety. Simon, my four year old, has been talking about his own worries lately, and they mirror the workings of the anxious person’s mind. “Mom?” he’ll say from the back seat of the car, “How does a package delivery guy deliver really big things?” “With a little cart called a dolly,” I tell him. “What if the dolly breaks?” he asks. “He’ll get another,” I tell him. “But Mom, what if all the dollies are broken and the man who fixes the dollies is dead?”
This is almost comical in its resemblance to the thinking of an anxious person. The what-ifs accumulate and snowball until a series of improbable possibilities have accumulated into an inevitable catastrophe. I’ve been there, and I can envision this world he’s describing, where everything that can go wrong, does.
The other day, as he was getting ready for bed, he turned to me and said, “Mom? What if my lunchbox falls down a deep cavern and you can’t reach it and Malcolm can’t reach it and Dad can’t reach it?” “Then we’ll get a new one,” I said. “What if I loved it?” he asked, his voice breaking, and I know the cavern he’s thinking of; I’ve spent years fretting over what I might lose irretrievably too.
What I can teach Simon is the practiced skill of managing these fears. I will probably be fine-tuning these skills for the rest of my life. After all, it’s a remission, not a cure. But what I love about Simon’s worldview is that while the fear of losing his lunchbox can send him into a tailspin of dread, the big questions, he’s got settled. Yesterday, I was eating lunch with him and he said, “Mom, if there are too many Asian Long-horned Beetles wrecking the trees, we’ll just call some woodpeckers to eat them until no beetles remain.” Seemingly insoluble ecological disasters like invasive species threatening entire ecosystems? Fret not, citizens, for Simon shall call down an army of woodpeckers.
On the way to school the other day, though, came the ultimate. Simon, who worries about the UPS man’s dolly, told me, “Mom, my friend at school doesn’t know where God lives.” “Well,” I said, “I don’t think anyone really knows where God lives, Simon,” (and certainly not this atheist). “Mom,” he answered sternly, “God lives in your heart.”
Of course. How could I be so stupid. I must not have been thinking. Or maybe I was too busy checking the ropes that lead down into that cavern where I can just make out the glint of a lunchbox in the deep gloom.