My Gabriel is an “Invisible Listener.”
My wife and I are very liberal with our bed time rules. That’s code for our kids run the joint. We like to be with our boys, and they still like us, so we’re willing to cede the evenings to them. Zachary, the night owl, falls asleep, eventually, in our bed, and we move him. Gabriel normally passes out, with astonishing regularity, around 8:30. He is the organizing principle for our evenings, which is why seeing him squirming, awake on the couch, around 9, was so strange.
It was bed time. The day was long and full, and we needed breaks. Whether the children slept or not was irrelevant; we needed them in bed. Z put up a fight, and Renay acquiesced. She agreed to go up with him. My little nocturnal power plant placated, the big guy was left, but I knew he’d be out and invisible in no time. Gabriel, however, still awake, looked anguished. I mentioned bed and he started to cry. Not the petulant type that we’ve gotten used to—the ‘you’re ruining my life by asking me to do something’ cry. This was calm, anguished, sincere. He was afraid.
A little context:
I’m not a huge TV guy, but I have my guilty pleasures, including Treehouse Masters, Ancient Aliens (don’t judge), and a few news programs. And I’m a huge radio fan. Any morning commute includes some sports talk but a healthy, prolonged dose of NPR. I love the TED Radio Hour and Radiolab. I love The Diane Rehm Show. The civil, intelligent, passionate discourse—I just can’t get enough. It’s an aural oasis in the midst of senseless, viral screaming and 10 word sound bites that dominate the airwaves. Rehm could be talking about pygmy three-toed sloths, and I’d be transfixed. I love cool ideas and intelligent analysis. If we’re not talking, we’re always listening.
This summer, Gabriel has spent most days with me. We’ve had plenty of spontaneous fun, but on most days we’re pretty routine. Drop Z off at daycare, head up to get some work done at Altamont (I can’t work at home--work-best-in-the-same-desk syndrome), head to lunch, embark on random adventures, pick up Z, head home. And every day includes lots of news. And some nights include some—I say this very loosely, analysis.
Unless we’re hermits sitting contemplatively atop a column, alone in the desert, we all know the headlines. Just this summer, and in no particular order: Brexit, Orlando, Nice, Dallas, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, Munich. And a civil, mannered, positive presidential election relentlessly streams from every outlet. And summer isn’t over. Tensions rise with the heat index. Every time I tune in, I’m surrounded by negativity, rage, and terror. And Gabriel, my living shadow, hears it all. He’s the invisible listener—a term I’m borrowing from a gentleman that I met at a race forum at the Birmingham YWCA: the unintended audience whom we don’t always consider. Some invisible listeners creep and scheme in the shadows. Some just consume and contemplate. Some are compelled by the conversations heard in passing. Some have waking nightmares, replete with helplessness in dreams.
Gabriel is a sharp kid. He’s sensitive, imaginative, and very perceptive. I often forget that he’s just seven. He asks tough questions, we have great conversations, and his curiosity is never sated. So I wrongly assume he can handle everything that I consume, which is silly and irresponsible; much of this summer has left me reeling, despondent, and incredulous. Why should I expect him to handle the news any better? Do I presume that he just doesn’t get it and tunes it out?
I opened my arms wide, inviting my crying child. He burrowed into me as he used to, hoping that I could cocoon him with my parent superpowers—back into a womb, to unknowing bliss. His lanky legs fell to the ground, an auspicious reality of his size; with them he pushed into me for greater security.
“Why are you crying,” I ask.
“Every night I have trouble going to sleep,” he says. “I worry about people breaking into our house.”
“Why are you worried about this?” I ask. “Where do you think this is coming from?”
“I don’t know.” There was silence.
“Do you think it’s from the news? From the shootings and the angry people?”
Gabriel nods. And in a moment, a reel of stark images accompanied by a fearful, angry soundtrack play in my mind. And our best attempts at sense-making fall short--white noise. Sometimes I think this is all too visceral still for reason. The facts are punishing. In his own way, with his own filter, Gabriel is playing that same film, nightly, when he’s alone and the world is quiet, in his bed.
Gabriel, like so many of our children, is present in the world. He’s a consumer, like me, but he’s not experienced like me. I am absolutely affected by every report of terror, every shooting, every angry protest in some international street. But I can compartmentalize or deny the gut in favor of the brain. Gabriel submits to the feeling first; his sense-making comes later.
I’m on the record that we should pay more attention to our children; this moment supports my argument. First, in the absence of manipulation or adult influences, they don’t act this way. Children certainly aren’t cherubs, but I don’t think that they’re inherently hateful. Yes, as they get older and have tasted more of history and culture, we see them dividing into tribes or bullying; sadly, we see a few commit heinous crimes. But this is the result of training or experience, and emotional immaturity; they're still learning how to deal with reality. Second, if we listen to the young ones—those old enough to start asking questions, those who still submit to raw emotion, we may see a wisdom that we’ve lost. If reality is the coal mine, the children are the canaries. In the absence of learned coping strategies or “soma holidays,” we’re left with honest reactions. Gabriel reminded me that first, I should be very sad for all of the victims, worried about this new world (am I brave enough?), and afraid of all the yelling.
Of course, living on pure emotion alone is dangerous. The problems are palpable in the screaming, irrational, angry hoards protesting in streets, rallies, on social media, and comments sections. And adults to often skip to rage. I can't think of a situation in which unchained rage is beneficial. But when followed by thoughtfulness and dialogue (which means speaking and listening), honest emotional reactions may be the ideal spring board. They orient our thinking and actions. And they remind us that humanity is the core issue. If I start from a point of calculated reason, which can be cold and hyper-rational, I’m probably going miss the point. Sadness, joy, and fear, however, lend themselves to compassion and empathy. If I can imagine another's suffering, and I allow it to hurt me, then I'm inviting a battalion of ideas to organize against injustice. And this leads to nuanced thinking. Intuitively, we know things aren't black and white. But we want them to be so. So much less emotional baggage and ambiguity.
When I'm angry, I act irrationally. It is regretful but true. And I own that. But I wonder if we've collectively cultivated a culture that's too busy, too detached, and too uncomfortable to feel much any more. We teach our children how to manage their emotions, but we never tell them to deny them. Perhaps we need retraining so that we're less reticent to listen to a news broadcast about a bombing at a wedding party in Turkey, shake our heads and say how horrible, and then tune out to Bravo! or ESPN. I need my levity and moments to de-process. But has my allocation of free moments tipped too far into distractions? Am I--are we--incapable of facing an unabridged reality, free of adornments, illusions of social media connectedness, and fifteen second rapid fire neon distractions? Do we ever experience more than an evanescent wisp of emotion, replaced too soon by a new one drawn from something else before the first could even be processed? I'm reminded of Dave McCroskey's Haiku:
The morning paper
harbinger of good and ill -
I step over it.
Gabriel reminds me that I must pay attention and feel something. I need to manage my emotions, but I need to embrace them. Ironic perhaps, but I think this is true
The kids are our canaries. I know this because I see them resisting big ideas, tough ideas, and troubling ideas. I see them lashing out at each other—as we do--and unable to deal with the emotional consequences. I see them hiding behind ones and zeroes, even when they're shoulder to shoulder. We crave trigger warnings and we endorse denial because we don't like pain. We don't know how to cope with emotions and we're loosing healthy social skills. But if we don't allow ourselves to feel, how do we differentiate between the hunting of minorities, the slaughter of revelers at a union, revenge killings against our sentries, Grand Theft Auto, or the recent success of the local t-ball team (#adorable; #preciouspumpkins; #babybambinos)? In the end, which get our attention? Which do we allow to affect us?
It's all quaint. Something to fill the time.
But not to Gabriel. He is visible and listening. Emotions overwhelmed him. And I'm a little jealous. And I hope I'm brave enough to face my own emotions and change the narrative. The world is big and full of serious issues. We have a choice about how we approach it. I choose to face it with all of my faculties.
Director, The Global Initiative.
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