There was a time, not so long ago, when I thought about my children and cried.
I remembered the harmonious idyllic world I had longed to create for them, in which they would while away their days in nature, playing with homemade toys and pine cones and things collected on one of our many sun-dappled forest walks, a rock-like stability underpinning their miniature cosmos, illuminated by a loving, calm, creative mother, protected by a strong, capable, dependable dad…
That was before I became a single mother of two kids, one and three years old, with a small farm (partly still a building site) to look after, and the trauma of a divorce to haul myself through. The routine I’d heard countless matronly bores harp on about as being the bedrock of a child’s sense of security became more of a zimmerframe on which I leant as I inched forward, so weighed down with guilt that I’d scarred my kids for life I could barely see how well they were, in fact, coping.
So when I went for a recent interview with my son’s teacher at his Steiner school, from which I left so depressed at her sad prognosis of his spiritual state that I found myself weeping again with guilt for robbing my kids of their pristine childhood innocence, I suddenly recalled something my mother had told me: ‘Never pity your children’.
Why not? Because whatever feeling you project onto another, you suffer it yourself – first, and perhaps also worst. It is the same elemental principle as that of du’a’: when you wish for someone good, you (however it may happen) stimulate goodness in the world – beginning with yourself. And when the feeling projected is negative, you do twice the harm.
Many Africologists talk of a kind of incidental witchcraft, when one merely thinks ills of a person, idly wishing something bad would happen to them – not unlike the ‘Ayn. On the other hand, asking for peace and blessings upon the prophets – or indeed anyone – carries as its rather marvellous side-effect the feeling of peace and blessings within oneself.
And so to pity, that peculiar sensation of viewing a person as though in an advert for Save the Children. It is not the same as compassion; originally related to ‘piety’, pity has come to mean quite the opposite, looking down on a person for being weak, ignoring their strength and adaptability, instead pigeonholing them as a passive sufferer. The pitier must, I believe, be working on the principle of ‘it takes one to know one’; pity must be overflowing in them from a well of self-pity that drowns out all confidence in their own abilities, let alone anyone else’s.
When we look at our children with this slough of despond in our eyes, what image are we helping them to create for themselves? How do we enable them to pick themselves up and move on from their setbacks? Are we merely projecting our own sense of being wronged and victimised, feeling validated when they too share our suffering?
In my short experience thus far on the bumper cars of motherhood, I have noticed that children absorb our impressions of them all too easily. I am still getting over that tendency to take on other people’s opinions and critiques myself, aiming more for duck’s back rather than bath sponge. Imagine what it must be like for a young child, who has not yet developed the ability to view himself from another perspective and rationalise what is true and false about himself.
To burden a child with our own perceived suffering is to double the weight of the world. To pity a child is to stifle her natural buoyancy, that zest for life that brushes aside defeat and comes out smiling. After all is said and done, though, pitying a child is really just a sign that we the parents are nursing a few playground bruises of our own. If we ditch the pity, perhaps we’ll find our kids can even help us come through the darkness and out into the sunlight – playing.