He ran down the sidewalk laughing. His awkward proportions had no effect on his speed as he propelled himself toward me. Suddenly, the rubber sole of his shoe caught on the cement, abruptly stopping his sprint, and he tumbled to the ground. Pain and surprise flashed across his face and I knew big emotions were soon to follow.
I could see the bloody scrape on his knee and forearm. He even had an abrasion on his nose from where his face met the concrete. He lifted his eyes, already brimming with tears, to look at me. He was seeking my reaction before he allowed his emotions full reign.
I had to make a split-second decision. I only saw two options: minimize the pain or empathize. Do I tell him to brush it off and ignore the injury? Or do I fawn over him, wrapping him in my arms, and tell him it’s ok? My reaction will teach him how to emote when life inevitably brings him pain and suffering in the future.
My knee jerk reaction was to tell him “big boys don’t cry.” I wanted him to brush it off and act like a warrior. “If we get knocked down we should stand up again.” “We aren’t quitters.” “Nothing comes without pain.” I want him to become a strong protector and a defender of good in this world, not a cry baby.
But he isn’t an adult, a warrior, or a quitter. He is small, and each new pain is an excruciating surprise. I wanted to take him in my arms and cry with him, treating him like the little boy that he is. These are his first experiences with suffering. He is my precious baby and I must treat him like the treasure that God entrusted me with, not a fully grown man.
It had been a split second. I had to decide. I was already moving toward him, acting on instinct. But I hadn’t decided yet, minimize the pain or empathize?
I’ve had injuries. It is terrifying to see the blood flow out of your body and feel the sharp sting of pierced skin. My heart has been deeply hurt by the abrupt and sudden fall of heartbreak. I can not protect him from this. I hope that he can keep his heart tender and compassionate despite the pain. But I also want him to be fierce and unrelenting in the face of adversity. I am proud to see him push himself to his limits and exhaust the bounds of my expectations.
I knew what to do the instant I reached him. I gathered him into an embrace and gave him permission to feel whatever he needed to feel. His tears fell freely as he experienced the pain and saw the blood. I cooed over him, searching his face to ascertain the depth of his injury, giving him time to react. I kept my face soft and tried to absorb whatever I could, acknowledging his pain without feeding it.
The time, while only seconds, was what I needed to comfort rather than react. I am sometimes too fast to push away strong emotions or I allow my anxiety to increase the intensity of a situation. Too often I allow my sadness, fear, and unresolved hurts to spread to him like kindling on a fire. But on this day, I was able to be exactly what he needed.
I kissed his face, swept him into the house, and bandaged his wounds. His cries quieted with the aide of a few bandaids, and his big emotions melted away. Soon, he was playing with his siblings, proudly displaying his “war wounds.”
It’s amazing what compassion and a kiss can do to heal wounds. A mother’s love is nothing more than a placebo, and yet it is incredibly powerful. A mother can not kiss away a broken bone, but her compassion can help numb fear, isolation, and stress. This is true throughout life when empathetic people are willing to sit with us as we experience big, difficult emotions, like grief, heartbreak, and anger.
So many people are told to hide their big emotions and wipe away their tears. We are told, “It’s not that bad.” “It happens to everyone.” But emotions are not intrinsically good or bad. They are a natural part of our humanity. It is uncomfortable to experience stress, fear, or sadness without trying to usher them away in favor of more socially acceptable emotions. But if you tuck these things into a corner and refuse to acknowledge them, they almost always grow into unmanageable monsters.
Let the big emotions out. Let them run their course. My son doesn’t remember this incident because he didn’t hold on to fear, pain, shame, or sadness. He felt them and then let them go. I hope that he can feel big emotions throughout his life and let them pass through him like air. By doing this, I hope he cries when he reads a beautiful poem, sees his bride on his wedding day, and when he first holds his newborn baby.
Big emotions are important for big moments when they are the perfect response to our complicated and beautiful world.
Did your parents let you express your big emotions? Do you still suffer from suppressed emotions?