A few nights after our cat's initial escape she vanished into the night again. And again our nine year old son felt terrified and quickly descended into a puddle of panic. This time my husband and I were calm, realizing that Tashi is young and fast and would likely be able to escape the predators in the night. We also realized that we can either trust that she’ll be fine or stress about it every time she refuses to come in before dark. We both chose the former, but our son was unable to follow suit.
“Mommy, I just can’t relax until she’s inside,” he whimpered.
“I know it feels like that, sweetheart, but we need to start to work on trusting her. If you were a cat, would you want to be trapped inside every night?”
“No, but I don’t want anything bad to happen to her. Is she going to be okay? Can’t we just look for like we did last time?”
“I really believe she’s fine and that she’ll come inside soon. We can look for her for a few minutes but then we have to go to bed. It’s getting late,” I responded.
“I’m just so worried, Mommy. I don’t want anything to happen to her!” And he puddled again into a ball of fear and tears.
At that point, I knew I needed to teach him some tools for managing this level of worry. I picked him up and asked him to look me in the eyes.
“Sweetheart,” I said with my calmest voice. “I know how scared you are and I can completely understand that. When I’m scared that something bad might happen to you or Asher, like when you’re really sick, it’s hard for me to think about anything else. But that’s the time that we need to ask for help in letting go of the some of the worry and pray for protection.”
I validate what he’s feeling and let him know that I empathize and “get it.” Then I offer the tools.
“Where do you feel the worry?” I ask.
“In my heart.”
“I want you to put your hands on your heart, breathe into the worry (Tonglen) and breathe out a sense of calm and safety. Let’s do that together for a few breaths.”
We breathe in and out. Our son is familiar with this practice as it’s been a cornerstone for helping him accept his awareness of loss connected to life and the passage of time.
“Now imagine gathering up the worry like a cloud. Gather it all up until it’s cupped in your hands. And now toss it into the sky and say the prayer that’s in your heart.”
He is a willing participant. He wasn’t always this way, but in the past couple of years he’s been increasingly receptive to learning tools to manage and heal from anxiety. So he breathed with me, gathered up the storms clouds of worry, and tossed them into the open, starry sky while saying a silent prayer.
We climbed the stairs and he got ready for bed. He was still worried when he got into bed but he was willing to try to sleep. After about ten minutes, we felt some furry, starfish paws making bread on his blanket and looked up to see our silver rascal purring and mewing in bliss. Our son was ecstatic, of course, and he fell asleep more quickly than normal.
A few days later we went for a swim at the rec center and he said, “Mommy, I’m scared Tashi’s going to go out again tonight and not come home.”
“She might come back after dark but I think we need to practice developing some acceptance and faith about it. We need to trust her or else we’re going to be living with a lot of worry.”
“But how do you not worry about creatures that you love so much?”
Well, that’s really the central question, isn’t it? When you love someone, you take the risk of losing them. Sometimes the risk feels utterly unbearable and we would rather erect the walls and reasons that convince us to walk away. This is at the heart of my work with relationship anxiety: each anxiety-thought adds a pebble to the wall of fear, and if you don’t understand that this is what is happening you run the high risk of walking away from a loving, healthy, fulfilling, relationship. We’re so scared of being hurt. We’re terrified of taking the risk of loving. But it’s the only way to live a full, multi-dimensional life.
So I answered my son.
“Sweetheart, one day you’re going to want to fly airplanes, right?”
“Yes!” His entire face lights up just at the mere mention of piloting planes.
“So I might feel scared when you fly, but I’ll need to find a way to trust you and trust life and let go, otherwise I’ll be living with a lot of fear and worry in my life. Flying planes for you is like climbing trees in the dark for Tashi. Would you like it if I tried to keep you earthbound? Would Tashi like it if we kept her inside all the time? It would certainly keep her safe, but her spirit would wilt. When you love someone, you have to set them free.”
He seemed to take it in. I don’t know yet what will happen next time Tashi refuses to come inside after dark, but I imagine it’s like anything else: It takes time and practice to create and concretize a new habit. Eventually he’ll see that Tashi is clever and resourceful, and that she’ll come back inside when she’s ready. He’ll trust her and he’ll trust life. Can I guarantee that Tashi will be safe? Of course not, and I’ve told him that. He wants a guarantee just like we all want a guarantee. He wants a way to safeguard against uncertainty and vulnerability. But there is no such thing. To be human is to be vulnerable. To be human is to live with uncertainty and the unknown. To set Tashi free will be his own path of setting himself free, for it’s only when we develop some tolerance for uncertainty that we can love with our whole heart and soul. And it’s when we love with fearless abandon that our spirits soar to the stars.
Sheryl Paul, M.A., has counseled thousands of people worldwide via her private practice, her e-courses and programs, her books, and her website, http://conscious-transitions.com. She has appeared several times on “The Oprah Winfrey Show”, as well as on “Good Morning America” and other top television, radio, and newspapers around the globe. Her home study course for pregnant women and new mothers, Birthing a New Mother: A Roadmap from Preconception Through the First Year to Calm Your Anxiety, Prepare Your Marriage, and Become the Mother you Want to Be, can be found at http://birthinganewmother.com. She lives in Boulder, Colorado where she and her husband homeschool their two sons.