Laughing through our Tears

cactiAt the end of the film “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (which, by the way, would translate as “Treasure of the Mountain Mother”), the treasure seekers who have endured all manner of hardship, betrayal and testing of character, are making their way back to civilization with their hard-won loot strapped to their pack mules when a fierce sand storm hits.  It is as if they were able to wrest the treasure from the mountain mother, but then the spirit Mother comes howling at them, untying their satchels of carefully harvested gold dust and swirling it off into the storm.  Left with nothing, the hardened yet chastened men can do nothing but… laugh—howling with laughter, as they stand enveloped by the winds of fate.

When I worked with group home kids they told me about the tale of La Madrone, the wind that whistled through the empty tunnels of Mexico City, the spirit-wind-Mother, crying for her lost children.  Hearing these boys tell me this tale, themselves lost boys without mothers who could care for them (or handle them, or stay sane for them), told by the dim glow of Salvation Army lamp-light in a sorry apartment complex in the San Fernando Valley, was like listening to ever-shifting gloss on some eons old orphan story out of the mists of time.  We could have been in the wilds with Oedipus and his hurt foot; we could have been huddled with Fagin, Bill Sikes, Oliver Twist and the other lost boys in the slums of London; we could have been on a ship moored in the Thames, the way Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” begins, a story-teller weaving a tale of faraway lands and, ultimately, interior darkness.

While we may wrestle with what we think of as “depression,” and kids “acting out,” the saddest stories, I realized as I learned them personally, were also some of the most invisible in our culture.  If we are to truly care about all of our collective children, we have to know that they exist—not just off in third world countries, but so much closer to ourselves than we may realize.  In speaking with a top-rate New York publisher about a parenting book I’ve written, they said to me that by using examples of extreme situations, parents of “normal” kids would be put off.  I suppose this may be true from a marketing standpoint, which I both respect yet don’t care much about—as my passion is to inspire us to care and make a difference, not to brand myself as any sort of expert.

So, I argue, and will, from time to time use extreme examples on this blog for a couple of reasons:  1) because the most extreme examples place so-called “normal” parenting issues in perspective, and make them very clear and easy to grasp (i.e. the teenager smashing windows and furniture is the three-year-old pitching a tantrum, only no one has previously set a limit and helped them feel safe within themselves), as well as offering relief as a result of a wider context of how bad it could be; and 2) because, whether it disturbs us or not, and whether it sells books or not, we need to collectively care about all our children.

At the clinic, when we would have a fund-raiser we would be told to gather up all the unruly and rude teens and pack them off to the mall, or the arcade; not because the were not cared about (although that’s sure how it felt to them), but because these kids did not get pleasantly smiling rich people to write check the way younger (to some people’s eyes cuter), singing together and looking angelic kids did.  I suppose it may be human nature, but if we learn how to see the sacred, big angry kids, and adults too, contain our own hearts of darkness. 

Another thing I learned in working with troubled kids is that, when they are not breaking your heart or threatening to break your bones, they can be extremely funny.  Despite dire circumstances, we laughed a lot.  And that was always the best medicine.  If anxiety is the basis of comedy, then comedy may also be the cure for anxiety and depression.

When my oldest child was three (and I was in the midst of working with group home kids) we were sitting at the table having some fruit and a tiny little fruit fly was hovering over the slices of peach on his little kiddy plate.  I was thinking about how, even though we didn’t have much (clinics don’t pay much, and student loans still had to be paid), we had so much good fortune just to have each other as a family, food and a roof over our heads.  My son watched the fruit fly, a look of consternation.  I said, “Honey, it’s just a fruit fly.”  And he said, as sweetly and sincerely as he could, “Next time, could he bring his own fruit?”

So let’s dedicate today to not turning away from those who need our help, and also to having fun and laughing at our situations.  It is a myth that money will solve the world’s problems.  Privilege of Parenting is not asking for money, this is not about money.  Instead we ask that you give love, attention and compassion (but without being too serious about any of it).  That way the poorest person in money, who may be the richest person in spirit, can be our honored and biggest donors (and also fun to hang out with).  Simply don’t turn away, look at people, respect them, care about them, laugh with them—they are you—they are us.  Although Jesus was reported to have said that we should love our neighbors as ourselves, since so many of us are unable to love ourselves, let’s try to love our fellows as our own children.

Namaste, Bruce

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