If you study evolution there is compelling evidence that all creatures originated in the sea. Over half of our body is water. As a fetus grows inside the womb, she starts out resembling a tadpole and gradually develops into a perfect little human being. This is achieved through breathing in nourishing amniotic fluid and digesting it much as a fish in water. For nine months the fetus is dependant upon the nutrients and building blocks contained in this fluid. When the baby finally makes her grand entrance into the world, she has to quickly adapt to breathing oxygen. It is the first of a million adaptations that she will make in her life.
For the first few years of her life, our child, let’s call her Lucy, is totally dependant on her parents and extended family. She needs help with feeding, her diapers need changed and she even needs to be placed in her cribs just so to avoid dying in her sleep. As she grows, little Lucy will learn how to roll over, sit up, get onto her hands and knees. She will go from her mother’s milk, to formula or baby food, to solids. She will learn to crawl and to walk. She will learn to make sounds, recognize words, form them with her mouth and vocal cords, and finally make sentences. With every one of these incremental little adaptations, Lucy is going to find joy, her parents are going to find bliss, and her extended family is going to find pride.
Lucy will find children her own age, maybe at the day care or out in the yard at the village. She will learn to socialize by trial and error. She will learn about right and wrong and which one works for her. She will learn about like and dislike, love and hate and personal preference. She will go to school and learn about the world around her. As she navigates through school, Lucy will have to dodge a series of obstacles, some by design, others by chance, that will make her question her very existence and the meaning of her life. She will run into speed bumps in the most importune places. She will be betrayed by the people that she loves and pleasantly surprised by the people that she doesn’t. She will run the gamut of emotions. How she handles each of them will determine her relative success in life.
As sure as the sun comes up each day, we all face challenges in our life. Whether you have a final exam in your microbiology class or you face a 10-hour shift at the Citgo station, you will have a challenge today. Sometimes the challenge is just getting out of bed. Sometimes the challenge is dealing with that one extra beer that you shouldn’t have last night. Sometimes the challenge is paying that electric bill when there’s no money left in the checking account. It might be running out of toothpaste. It is not the challenge that matters, it is how you deal with it. You will face the gamut of emotions. No matter how much planning you do, your life will be contingent on a plethora of other factors.
I like to think of contingency like a million little fishy hooks. Every waking minute of every day, life dangles a fishhook in front of you. It might be the temptation to eat that extra cookie or drink that extra beer. It might be that girl who lives upstairs that you know you shouldn’t make a move on. But what if you should? It might be that guy at work who annoys you. Should you give him a piece of your mind? It might be road rage. It might be that guy on the corner with the cool looking fake Rolexes. It might be the temptation not to wear a condom. I could fill up a James Michener sized book with the contingencies that we face in our everyday lives.
With contingency comes choice and opportunity. If the stoplight turns yellow in front of you, do you stop, plow through it, or dive into the right turn on red lane to save that few seconds? If your favorite bartender winks at you, do you assume that she wants you or realize that she’s just being playful? If you encounter an end cap full of buy-one-get-one ice cream at the grocery, do you walk right past, grab two cartons, or go get another cart and fill it up? Each one of the choices could change the course of your life in a second.
With contingency comes emotion. I’ve come to think of emotions as buzzy bees zipping around in my mind. When we are calm and composed, our emotions are like docile bees going around and pollinating the synapses in our brain. They are omnipresent, ready to strike at any given moment. When we are focused, the bees keep their place and do their job making honey. When we lose focus, obsess on this or that, it is like grabbing the hive and giving it a big shake. The bees become excited and angry. The buzz becomes so loud in our brain that we can think of little else. We become so obsessed with swatting that bee, beating that stoplight, sleeping with that bartender, telling off that coworker, eating that ice cream, that everything else becomes secondary to that emotion. We lose our momentum and it changes the course of our lives.
But what if we deal with those bees in a different way? What if we teach Lucy how to deal with her emotions from a very early age? What if we could do this will all of our children? A large portion of a child’s schooling is made up of math, science and language. Our children are drilled in these subjects through rote memorization. We teach them for The Test. When they pass that test, we teach them for The Next Test. And so on, and so on. In the mean time, a large part of their emotional development is carried on in their interactions with other children. If they are too large or too small, too short or too tall, too light or too dark, talk too funny or look too funny, they get left behind. Right or wrong, this is human nature.
I would suggest that our emotional development needs to start much earlier and more targeted towards acceptance. Kids are resilient, but only if you get to them early enough. The child of the new millennium grows in a melting pot environment. America is not homogenous. Everywhere you look there are beautiful people of all shapes, sizes and hues. Understanding that our differences are what makes us beautiful is the key to growing up whole and loving. Rather than leaving kids to discover their differences on their own, why not place an emphasis on it from preschool and beyond. Why not build a psychology of acceptance into our curriculum. It’s the key to avoiding those fishy hooks. It’s the key to the right kind of buzzy bees. The will always be bullies, bigots and haters. But your kid doesn’t have to be one of them.