"Everything happens for a reason," the saying goes, and the same self-help culture that gives us that maxim has made it reflexive to respond to bad things by seeking "the lesson" or even "the perfection in every moment." Clichéd as it's become, this dogged commitment to find meaning in -- or even gratitude for -- adversity is probably a good thing, even if the quest for a "takeaway" from tough moments is occasionally only a temporary distraction from the drama.
I tried, like many parents and people, to make sense of the double-whammy fate dealt in late 2012: first, the Krim family tragedy in which a Manhattan mother came home to find that her trusted nanny had allegedly taken the lives of her two children, and then the Newtown shooting, in which 20 young children lost their lives, many in the first grade classroom of their suburban schoolhouse. Hurricane Sandy and the destruction it wrought in the intervening weeks added to the sense that tragedy, and random tragedy at that, was closing in on us, and fast.
The only message I could discern in these arbitrary and terrible acts was powerful, and hardly positive: Danger lurks everywhere. No one can be trusted. If my children are out of my sight, it's entirely possible they are in mortal danger.
And what were the fruits of this lesson?
After the Krim murders, at work (at a job I love), at the gym (my indulgent "me" time) and every moment my children were out of sight, all I could think about was how they might be at risk. Each night, my hand shook as I opened the door and it wasn't until I had them in my arms that I realized I had been holding my breath, terrified of what I might find. Then I would feel terrible for mistrusting our wonderful, caring nanny and hide my feelings with false humor... And the next day, the cycle would start all over again, only slightly mitigated during the hours I felt my son was "safe" at preschool.
And then the Newtown shooting happened. With another "safe space" invaded, fear resurged. I'd sit at my computer and realize twenty minutes had passed in which all I had done is map out the danger zones in my son's school and conjured various worst-case scenarios involving my children. I couldn't wait for the holidays -- a time when I usually jokingly gripe about lack of childcare -- so I could have my little ones in my care 24/7. Then everything would be perfect, right?
Well... on the first night of our vacation, far from these incidents and the relentless coverage of the fear-mongering American media, I was preparing to bathe the kids after a jaunt in the hotel swimming pool. I was holding the baby and telling my son (repeatedly) to stop playing with a glass door as my husband showered. Then, standing right between his two watchful parents, my son slammed the door into the wall, shattering it into thousands of pieces and leaving him and my husband covered in blood and glass. My scariest mommy moment to date was mercifully short: the cuts didn't even merit stitches, my son skied for the first time not two days later, and he now boasts about the ambulance ride to the spotless Alpine hospital in which he spent just one night. We are all still breathing sighs of relief.
Once again, I sought "the lesson," since my assumption that my presence could fend off danger had shattered as readily as the door, and this time it was crystal clear: there are things to fear ABSOLUTELY EVERYWHERE. Our choice, however, is whether or not to let fear define our worldview. If we do, these anxieties will surely disfigure all our experiences, whether or not they "come true." When we are fearful, it is inconceivable to engage with the world lovingly or happily. Anything beautiful - from a child's independence to a peaceful workout to full engagement with one's work - is impossible to appreciate if fear is constantly creeping in to whisper what tragedy might lie around the corner.
So in this month of resolutions, I have a modest proposal, but one that is already transforming my own experience of my children and my life. I am determined to choose love over fear, no matter what. I know I cannot safeguard my family completely, but I also know I can deliberately embrace uncertainty as representing possibility rather than peril. I know I can choose to be present in every moment, whether I am reading bedtime stories, writing, running, or doing the three-hands-and-heart-full juggle inherent to parenting young children. No matter what happens, I know that it is in my control to spend my time enjoying the beauty that is in my life already, rather than fearing that one day it will be wrested from me. And to me, that is the most important lesson of all.
Originally published at www.theorangerhino.com.