Monday, September 30, 2013

Silencing the Censor

The kids didn't have school Friday thanks to the county fair. We had planned to head to the parade that morning and then take advantage of the free fair entry for students after, but when we woke up that morning, even Abby, our most vocal parade-attendance advocate, said she would rather have a quiet morning at home.

We are all introverts, the four of us. After busy weeks of school and sports and parties and stimulation, the kids especially needed a day of nothing. Nowhere to go. No one to see. Just one, long, unscheduled day to color and make-believe and ride bikes and otherwise relax. I was more than happy to oblige.

At first, the kids played separately, Ben in their room pretending something with sound effects and props made from household items, Abby coloring princess pages on the family room floor. They were perfectly content, absolutely at peace in their respective solitudes. I picked up the book I borrowed from the library the day before, The Artist's Way, and read with only the occasional interruption to admire a new finished picture.

After a while, Abby pulled out a book she received for her birthday with instructions on how to draw animals. Benjamin found his way to her side with his own drawing board, and the two sat on the floor drawing together for over an hour. At times, Abby would look at Ben's picture and say, "Oh, Ben, that's great." Other times, Ben would say, "Abby, what are you working on now?" They didn't talk much, both happy simply to be near each other. Companionship in its truest form.

At some point, Benjamin grew agitated with his drawing. Frustrated, he said, "I'm a bad drawer."

Without hesitation, Abby said, "Don't say that, Ben. If you say that, you will believe it."

I marveled that this principle, one that is difficult for many grown-ups to grasp, had flowed out of my six-year-old's mouth so readily. We've been talking about this idea more and more lately, as the kids meet with greater challenges in their childhood worlds, faced with decisions about how to respond to perceived failures or their own insecurities: the importance of making accurate statements about ourselves, statements that do not define us by one action or mistake or failure.

Just nights before, Benjamin had a rough warm-up in the batting cages before his baseball game, and as he walked to the field for game time, a stream of negative self-talk filled the airways. "I'm not a good hitter," he said (though hitting is actually one of his strengths). "I don't want to play in the game tonight" (first-game nerves getting the best of his courage). As we walked the sidewalk through the fields together, I gently encouraged him to revise his statements. "I had a tough warm-up," "That wasn't my best batting practice," "I need more practice," I suggested. Anything that recognizes this is one disappointing performance instead of deciding he's a hopeless performer, anything that leaves room for improvement, growth, miracles, surprises. Because saying he's a bad player isn't true, but he can make it true if he believes it. Sports psychology, any psychology 101.

That's why, ever since I first internalized this concept from the book Siblings Without Rivalry when the kids were wee, I've tried to avoid making blanket generalizations and labels about my kids, all too aware of how doggedly persistent words, judgement, can be. Having revised my own words about them, I'm trying to help them do the same.

"You're not Mommy, Abby," Ben said on the floor, his voice laced with frustration. Abby--who often handles Benjamin's irritation with the qualities of rubber, allowing his jabs to bounce off her rather than absorbing their impact--continued drawing.

I decided to step in here, affirming Abby's willingness to speak up and echoing the truth of what she said.

"She's right, Bug," I said to Benjamin. "Better to say, 'This is a bad drawing' or 'This didn't turn out well' rather than 'I'm bad at this.' Especially since just yesterday you talked about what a good artist you are."

As is often the case when kids are given a lecture or advice, Benjamin gave the minimal response, determined to maintain his bad attitude.

I asked him if I could share something I was reading.

Lately, he's been interested in hearing about the books I read. Books have become a common language between us, one that holds even if our own words fail us. The night before, we sat on my bed together, reading side-by-side. I laughed aloud at a passage from Rowing to Latitude, a memoir about a woman who has rowed thousands of miles along the Arctic's edge. He asked me what was so funny, so I read him the passage. As a teenager, she attended a camp where they kayaked in the ocean. As they rowed back to shore, her group found themselves surrounded for a few miraculous moments by whales, which no one believed when they returned--until they inhaled. Drenched in whale spout spray, the kayakers reeked of rotting fish. For weeks, no matter how many times she showered, this girl stunk. The smell was so bad that when she started school a week after her camp, she was called to the principal's office to discuss her hygiene. Benjamin found this predicament hilarious, laughing and laughing in his cutest, uncontrollable giggles as I read.

So there in the family room, I asked him if he'd be willing to listen to something in my book, and he agreed. I told him that this book was written for artists to help them create. Then I read this passage about self-criticism, with a few paraphrases and ad hoc revisions where the language exceeded his comprehension, substituting his comments about drawing where she drew on writing examples:

"...we feel we never do enough and what we do isn't right. We are victims of our own internalized perfectionist, a nasty internal and eternal critic, the Censor, who resides in our (left) brain and keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as the truth. The censor says wonderful things like, "You call that writing? What a joke. You can't even punctuate. If you haven't done it by now you never will...' And on and on. Make this a rule: always remember that your Censor's negative opinions are not the truth. This takes practice..." (p. 11).

He looked at me while I read, and when I made eye contact with him after I finished, his eyes had softened, his pupils no longer the tiny pinholes they had been in his defensive posture. Mommy's words echoed by an authority: the Censor is always a liar. Perhaps they are worth considering? Benjamin returned to his drawing, persevering in his work despite his frustration.

I went back to reading to myself.

The author goes on to liken the Censor to "a cartoon serpent, slithering around your creative Eden, hissing vile things to keep you off guard." I do believe this correlation. The serpent does slither around our lives, hissing accusations, declaring defeat, inviting us to judge ourselves wrongly, with shame and fear and failure. We believe we are hopeless, when in fact we have been created in the very image of God. We proclaim a false word about ourselves, and come to believe this shadow identity. We allow one bad practice to derail our desire to play the game.

We see ourselves properly only when we surrender our negative proclamations, our Censor, our self-judgment, to the one Word that trumps all others: Jesus, whose judgement is mercy, grace, and love unconditional. When we believe that Word, light enters darkness, truth exposes lie, and we are defined by Him, transformed in His image.  Little by little, day by day, with each thought taken captive to Truth, the Censor's words are silenced, replaced by the living Word, who says, "I created you. I have a plan for you. I see you are more than the sum of your failures. Get out in this world and play your heart out without concern for being perfect, for I am using even your imperfections to win this battle against the serpent."

It starts small, with the discipline to not label ourselves and those around us with our failures. But this discipline is a powerful shield against the Censor, the serpent. I pray that my children will trust me as I coach them to revise their thoughts and words, and come to believe the Truth of who they are: beloved masterpieces created to fill this world with faith, hope, and love--truth serum in a world bullied by the hisses and whispers of a slithering Censor.

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