Managing health problems or being a caregiver shifts our perspective on daily setbacks, but that doesn’t stop us from catastrophizing now and then.
When my middle son Jackson was six, I could see he was headed for prison. It started the day he was suspended from first grade. The school called, and I pulled the phone away from my face like in a movie scene. As I stared at the receiver, several things ran through my head, like:
Did Ted Bundy get suspended in grade school?
Then I steadied myself and got grounded. My next thought was:
Would it kill him to just try to be normal?
Jack’s dad, Brian, and I met in the school lobby and signed the visitor log. Next to my signature was the column asking, “Reason for your visit?” I wrote, “Criminal Behavior.”
The secretary looked worried. She wore a sweatshirt with a picture of fireworks, though she was clearly not in the mood for a party. She gave me a visitor sticker to wear. It said “Needs escort” in red letters.
We walked through the administrative building to the principal’s office. It was filled with inspiring posters of children holding hands as they ran across a finish line. I sat across from one that read, “You Miss 100% of the Shots You Don’t Take.”
“We had a little episode today,” the principal began.
This could go in so many directions. I still tried to picture the issue in my mind: Jackson suspended. This was our kid that never had conflicts, the one in an eternally good mood, the one who excelled at de-escalation.
This was the kid who, when questioned with his brother Noah about their disastrous mess in the living room, leaned over to four-year-old Noah and whispered, “act natural.”
All of this and more ran through my mind as we faced the administrator. Brian sat glumly beside me.
“We have a zero tolerance for weapons at school,” the principal said.
“Weapons?!” was all I could say.
“He brought a knife contraption in. He said it was camping tool he found in the garage, you know, one of those Swiss Army types.”
I nodded and let out a relieved, “Whew.” Brian gave me a look, and I made my most serious face. I wanted to show that I was actively listening.
“We will talk to him,” I said. “What bad judgment! I sure can’t wait for his prefrontal cortex to develop! Just 18 years.”
The principal gave me a thin smile.
“That wasn’t the biggest problem,” she continued. “He showed the knife to the other boys on the playground, and of course they were very interested in it. He rented it to them for a dollar a day. One of the other parents called.”
“He’s an entrepreneur!” I said, maybe a tiny bit too proudly. It just slipped out, I swear. Apparently this wasn’t the most parental comment.
If Jackson’s older brother, Porter, didn’t have a brain injury and daily medical problems, this encounter might have been a whopper. Instead, the issue was something we could fix – something manageable. Through our experiences with Porter, I’d learned that in the realm of problems, the things we can fix aren’t all that bad.
One of the benefits of having dealt with truly difficult things beyond our control, like Porter’s disability, is the perspective it lends to road bumps like this.
Daniel Kahnemann explored this issue and called it “What You See is All There Is” (or WYSIATI). It’s the human tendency to be myopic when our stone-aged brains amplify problems. Our inner storyteller takes hold and spins a narrative to match the current events. (Suspended in first grade = future felon).
The problem is that our imaginary narrative is missing data, yet we still believe what we hear from our inner voice. We can’t stop these knee-jerk reactions, but we can work with them by double-checking our reactions with trusted people.
When we stop to check the facts, we can see that “suspended in first grade” does not automatically mean “future felon.”
We can also use the difficulties throughout the rest of our lives to consciously build perspective. In the scheme of monthly hospital visits and a brother with autism and seizures, the school event fell in the “manageable” category.
I talked to Jack when we got home that night. He wore his Spiderman pajamas after his bath and sat on the floor cross-legged with his chin in his hands.
“The principal said you were suspended for renting the Swiss Army knife to the other boys.”
Jack was silent.
“While I like your creative spirit, bringing a Swiss Army Knife to school is a bad move,” I continued.
Jack rolled on the floor and did a hand stand.
“You realize it was a bad move, right?”
He sat up straight and gave me his serious face.
“You got me there, mom.”