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It's Not About the Batteries

By Sheryl Paul, M.A.
July 16, 2008

A sobbing reaction from my son spawns a lesson in feeling out of control.

Grandma and Nana Erika came to visit from Durango last weekend. Aside from my husband and me, Grandma and Nana are Everest’s most favorite people in the world. The bond with each of them was immediate and deep: the first time he met Grandma he reached for her and started laughing delightedly (unprecedented behavior for my extremely introverted little guy), and the first time he met Nana he stared in her eyes for at least four minutes without breaking contact, as if he was peering into her soul and found himself connecting with a kindred spirit.

And kindred spirit she is. Alongside my husband, she’s his favorite playmate. It took me having a child and seeing him around adults to realize how few big people really know how to get down on the floor – literally – and play! The two of them have invented the most creative and hilarious games together, sending each other into fits of unbounded laughter – from “stinky grass” to “pumpkin squirrel face”. Erika “gets” Everest in that way that we all long to be “gotten.” They have laughed and played and hugged their way deep into each other’s lives. And with that level of love comes a level of risk that Everest became aware of for the first time last weekend.

It started innocently enough. Grandma and Nana had brought Everest an early birthday present – a batting tee that required batteries for the automatic pitching system to work – but, like most kid toys, batteries were not included. As Erika was out doing some shopping later in the day she thoughtfully picked up some batteries, and even included an extra pack. It was the first thing Everest wanted when we came home.

“Where are the batteries?”  he asked Grandma.
“Nana Erika has them, but she’s taking a rest right now.”
“Why is she taking a rest?”
“Well, Erika gets sick a lot so she needs to make sure that she rests.”

Just then Erika walked in with the batteries. Everest ran to her, breathless with excitement (ah, the thrills of a four year old!), and laid the batteries out on the couch. Then he saw what none of us would have seen: that there were two packs of one brand but only one pack of a different brand. And before we knew it, he went from zero to sixty and completely lost it.


As he sobbed uncontrollably, I carried him upstairs and held him in our big yellow rocking chair. He cried and cried, and I listened and kissed him, allowing him to have his feelings while holding the knowledge that it wasn’t really about the batteries. He cried for a long time and kept saying over and over again that the only thing that would help is if we went out and bought another pack of batteries so he could have two of each. It was clear that he felt out of control and that, in his little mind, securing the fourth pack of batteries would help him feel in control again. But I’ve known him long enough – and know enough about the human mind –  to know that something deeper was at play. I closed my eyes and tried to tune into what it might be, and it suddenly occurred to me that hearing that Erika “gets sick a lot” must have terrified him. Instead of being able to articulate how scary and sad that made him feel, he displaced those difficult feelings onto the batteries.

I have a section in my first book, “The Conscious Bride”, called “It’s Not About the Dress”, in which I talk about the common tendency among engaged women to displace their uncomfortable feelings about getting married – the fear, the grief, the anxiety, the doubts – onto different areas of the planning, so that instead of owning and naming “I’m scared to get married,” she becomes obsessive about finding the perfect dress. We’re all susceptible to this type of projection, and in witnessing Everest’s immediate displacement of his anxiety about Erika’s health onto the missing batteries, it became painfully clear how early this habit begins and how, if the anxiety isn’t witnessed and re-routed back to its true origin, the habit becomes increasingly more ingrained until it’s almost calcified into the fabric of our beings.

During times of transition we’re particularly vulnerable to projecting our fears and anxieties onto unrelated issues. The transition might be an obvious one – like getting married, moving, changing jobs, or becoming a parent – or it might be less obvious, like traveling into a dark layer of psyche, another spiral of our growth and healing process, and feeling raw and scared in the new territory. As humans, we’re generally not very good at sitting with uncertainties – we like definite answers and quantifiable knowns – so when a situation arises that pits us against the unknown, we immediately try to fix it. Like Everest thinking that he needed the fourth pack of batteries to feel better, we think we need the perfect dress or a new car or the next relationship or the house to sell. When we’re in the midst of a difficult time, we have the tendency to say, “I’ll be happy when…” without seeing that the majority of our difficulty is not the situation itself but our reaction to the situation. Life is suffering, as the Buddhists say, and I understand that to mean that, while there are effortlessly joyous times, there are inevitably challenging times, and if we only live for life’s eddies then we’re missing the great spiritual opportunity of learning to embrace the rapids and even laugh our way through them.

As Everest cried, I said to him, “Was it hard to hear that Nana gets sick a lot?”
To which a hiccupped, “Yes.”
“Oh, sweetheart, that must have been really scary to hear that. Do you know that Nana is okay right now, but that it’s okay to feel scared about her illness? And when she’s sick, there are ways that we can help. We can send her cards and tell her that we love her.”
“Is there anything that would help you feel better right now?”
(Good ol’ comfort food : ) )

So I went downstairs and made him some hash browns. He wasn’t ready to come down yet, but eventually he came and had dinner with us. He never mentioned the batteries again, for once his feelings got validated and processed, there was no need to focus on the missing batteries.

The next night at dinner we brought some paper and markers to the restaurant. He quickly got busy and said, “I’m making a picture for Nana Erika so she can look at it when she’s sick. It will make her feel better.” Then he took out his gold glitter glue and said, “And this picture has magic in it.”


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