Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lions at the Door

Yesterday I made a seven year old girl cry. And she wasn't even my seven year old.

Both my girls have become adrenaline junkies (this is new for Livie, formerly The Delicate Chicken). At amusement parks, we run from roller coast to roller coaster screaming our heads off. But as we learned yesterday, this style does not suit dear mother-daughter friends of ours, with whom we went to Disneyland yesterday for the first time. They are, in the mother's words, a couple of wusses. Their speed is more Sleeping Beauty's Carousel and the petting zoo.

Sophia was bummed. She had pictured riding the Matterhorn with her "big girl" friend. "Sweetie," I explained, "we can ride roller coasters any time. Today is just about hanging out with our friends. And not everyone is the same. What makes us feel excited and happy makes your friend feel afraid and anxious." So she let the issue drop. And occasionally, we split up to ride a fast ride while they browsed a boutique.

But at the end of the day, we gently encouraged our 7-year-old friend to ride the Symphony Silly Swings, the traditional twirling carnival attraction, without the sadistic carnival operator. I got the big girls buckled up in their tandem seat and they were mugging for the camera just before we took off. But one round on those swings, I looked back, and Sophia's buddy was clinging to chain with the determined face of someone who really wants to cry but is trying their hardest not to. The second we got off she ran to her mom and sobbed into her stomach.

Soph and I felt terrible. It was a good lesson for my daughter: that we should accept our friends as they are and not try to make them more like us. But I need to learn that lesson -- over and over -- just as much. Because the fact is, even if I might tell my daughter not to force the issue with a friend who is anxious about something, underneath, I am sometimes making a judgment about my own friends' differences, especially when they are afraid of situations that to me are no big deal.

Speaking recently with my wise friend Jenni, we were discussing this very subject. The hazards of offering advice to someone in crisis, fear or pain, is that what seems an obvious solution to us is an insurmountable obstacle to them. The way Jenni put it is, "It seems easy to you, but for them, there may be a lion in front of that door."

I have a couple of doors with lions in front of them myself. From simple and bizarre phobias (I faint when my children throw up) to more deep-seeded issues (numbers and money make me extremely anxious and I can be pretty insecure in my female friendships). Both the big and small fears do, in fact, have causes; they may not be rational, but who says emotions are rational? It is perhaps the irrationality of them that makes them so hard to overcome.

I was confessing one of these small fears on the phone to someone recently and her response was, "Get over it." I wanted to put my hand through the phone and flick her on the forehead. I'm sure my face looked a lot like my poor little friend's as she was clinging to the chain of her Silly Swing: Will someone please get me out of here so I can cry with someone who makes me feel safe?

I really don't want to make anyone else's face look like that. Not my daughters' friends. Not my friends, who are like sisters to me. Not my mom. Not the women I serve with at church. Not the moms at my MOPS table. There's a place for tough love. There's a time for encouraging someone to step out of their comfort zone. It's good to have people around us that challenge us to be better, and to help make them better too. But a lot of the time, the better response is to be people that makes each other feel safe.

I want to love the way I want to be loved: issues and all. The best kind of friend in my opinion, the one I hope to be, is the one that says: "Go ahead and cry. That must hurt. I'm sure that does seem scary. I can see why you feel anxious about that." And then if someday they''re ready to tackle that lion, I'd be happy to pull out my sword and help take the lion down. Or, even, ride the Silly Swings with them.

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