Last night, I was playing around with Elaine, my eight-year-old daughter, and I kept giving myself outlandish praise for every small achievement during the game. If I managed to startle her, I’d crow about how fast I was, if I evaded her, I’d sing about my agility. We giggled through all of this until she finally managed to tag me, but I stayed unruffled and didn’t flinch or react and then bragged about how cool and calm I was.
After a small pause, Elaine leaned toward me and we had the following conversation;
“Calm? Did you say you’re calm?” Elaine asked.
“Of course,” I replied, “don’t you think I’m calm?”
Elaine’s voice dropped a notch as she said, “No, daddy. You snap and sometimes you shout. You were shouting at me when we were doing my homework. Maybe you weren’t very angry, but ‘irritable’ is not ‘calm’.”
‘Irritable’ is not ‘calm’. I was completely slack-jawed and dumbfounded, realizing that my little girl was right- “…out of the mouths of babes and sucklings” and all that, I suppose. Whenever I react out of proportion to a situation and see the hurt expression on Elaine’s face, I usually soften and apologize to her, explaining that I’m just a bit ‘irritable’. I suppose she accepts irritability as an explanation for my episodes, but will not stand for me claiming to be calm on top of them.
Something happened to me in the last decade that has whittled away at my once-legendary composure (hey listen, it was legendary to me, anyway). I don’t believe it’s middle age because that only affects my body- most notably dodgy knees while trying to play basketball and the thickening around my middle that defies even my skinny spells. No, it can’t be middle age because, in the back of my mind, I’m still nineteen (to crudely paraphrase Stephen King) and all-powerful.
I don’t think it can be stress because I suspect I was born stressed. I’ve never been particularly relaxed as a person; calm once, yes, composed too, but never especially relaxed, so I can conclude that stress is not the culprit. My body has tried coming up with some wannabe hypertension a couple of times during times of extreme stress, but each time settled back into its old rhythms. Bear in mind that I live in Lagos and there are an infinite number of things to stress about- electric power, money, traffic, crime, police, water, kidnappers, maids, money, status, security, money, taxes, fraud, schools, strikes, money, sanitation, landlords, money, visiting First Ladies, plane crashes, MONEY, MONEY, MONEY… Veterans of this place routinely chew stress up and spit out its bones! I have lived here for decades- I think that qualifies me as a veteran! The worst thing stress does to me now is to strip me of extra weight and I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.
If it isn’t age and it isn’t stress, the only thing I can identify as the reason for my loss of composure is fear; fear of loss, failure, inadequacy… all of which become constant companions from the moment we begin families. As soon as we make that individual, conscious, emotional choice to share our lives and share responsibility for the well-being of others, Fear takes up residence.
We usually don’t notice Old Fear initially, because our attention is arrested by the other co-tenants he moves in with- Love, Hope, Romance, Compassion. Fear starts out as the quiet, nerdy roomie that can gradually take over completely, given just the right circumstances. One day, you notice that your furniture, your routines, your décor are all arranged according to the dictates of Old Fear. Life and career decisions are informed more by the need for material security than by desire or passion. The fear of hungry children, unpaid bills, delinquent school fees, un-celebrated anniversaries, medical bills, poverty-related social stigma… significantly outweighs the satisfaction of ‘following my passion’, right?
When Old Fear has his feet up on your center table, watching HIS shows on YOUR TV, you can still keep your composure, I suppose, because you have accepted the trade-off. Your life with Love, Hope, Romance, and Compassion is stable and ordered (though your lifelong friendship with Personal Satisfaction has suffered as a result of your new domestic status), so you can still maintain your composure. It’s when Old Fear starts bringing his own crew into your space that the disintegration begins.
When Old Fear, Resentment, and Regret start hosting regular barbecues in your yard, game over! Every bill becomes an emergency, every 2-year-old tantrum, every 8-year-old homework mistake, every mosquito bite, every spousal disagreement, becomes a potential indicator of your failure as a partner, provider, parent and caregiver in an endless barrage that makes you, well, lose your composure.
Unless you can rein Old Fear in, call him to order and put him in his place; Old Fear has his place in your home because he has a role to play, but not as the ruler of your kingdom. However, you must kick out Resentment and Regret, and rekindle your relationship with Personal Satisfaction and find some calm. Accept that there are NO perfect lives in which all is as it should be; bad things happen, but good things happen too, and your greatest power lies in your control over your own actions for good… or not. Try to enjoy the fruits of your labor, endure the whims of happenstance and embrace the flaws of others; even those whose flaws you consider it your duty to correct.
Get out from under the thumb of Old Fear. Get on with living. Regain your composure.