Well, We Tried….

I have a tendency to want to undo big decisions that have already been made. I’m like a general who calls for their troops to retreat; but in my case, it’s before the battle has even begun. “Well, we tried. Let’s pack it up.”

When my oldest child Caroline moved from elementary school to our local middle school, I was unprepared for how big a transition it would be. For me. The two schools were literally next door to one another, but it might as well have been a world away. The school was huge and she was such a little thing. After I dropped her off that first day of sixth grade, I called my husband within the hour and said, “I think I should circle back around and get her.” To be clear, my daughter was absolutely fine; I was the one that felt certain that we’d made a terrible mistake as a family and as a culture. 

Wisely, my husband asked what my next steps would be for her education. And also what I thought I would say at the front desk when they make you list the reason why you are checking your child out of school. “Fear” was the only answer I could come up with. 

Similarly, I texted my friends the day after we took this same child to college. I told them that I thought I should probably go back and get Caroline from her dorm room. She hadn’t even started classes yet, but I felt like we’d given it a shot and it was time to “call it.” In addition to having a super-reasonable husband, I’m thankful for friends who can serve as guardrails when I panic and suggest halting my child’s education for no good reason. 

I rarely act on these delusions of retreating, but it’s a stage that I have to work through in order to take the next steps. It’s like a weird variation on the stages of grief; it’s a resistance to accepting what is clearly already happening. 

I think there’s something in my personality that wants to believe that going back to “before” is always an option, like I can just rewind and everything will be the same. Of course, this is rarely true. Three years ago, we moved from a house out in the country into downtown Athens. I hadn’t been back to our old house since we’d moved, but last summer a package was mistakenly  delivered there, so I went to retrieve it. My heart sank the moment I turned into our old driveway. The new owners had ripped out all of our shrubs and flowers; my perennial beds were now filled with rubber bark. This was absolutely their right as homeowners and they had told us that they weren’t into gardening; it just never occurred to me that our old yard would look so radically different. I guess I imagined my plants chugging along without me, which I found incredibly comforting. Even though the old house was no longer ours the moment we signed the paperwork, a part of me kept it in my heart as an option in case we didn’t like this new house.  Once I saw that my swamp sunflowers and Russian sage and gardenias weren’t there anymore, that door was slammed shut. Going back wasn’t an option. 

Last October, I attended a writing workshop in Italy. It was a huge step for me; I’d never traveled that far alone. The group was warm and welcoming and collaborative, but I had the sneaking suspicion that I didn’t belong there. Many of them were published authors and most seemed to be much further along in their writing careers than I was. Sometime during the second day, I decided that this trip had been a mistake and that my writing was dumb and that it would probably be best for everyone if I just flew home. 

Why do I do this? Why is this a stage that I regularly go through when I’m dealing with a new experience?

It turns out that it isn’t just me. I read an article a few years ago that gave me both insight and tremendous relief. It explained a theory in evolutionary biology which states that our brains are designed primarily to keep us alive and out of danger. Our brain’s job is to keep us safe, not make us happy. If survival is the goal, then trying new things isn’t in our brain’s best interest. When my brain is yelling, “Abort, abort” in the middle school parking lot, it’s just a sign that things are changing. Change is scary; writing is scary; accepting that our kids are growing up is scary. Our brain would prefer we do none of these things. 

Thankfully, I stayed in Italy at the writing workshop and decided to soak up as much as I could from my teachers and fellow writers. They were so encouraging and gave great suggestions about how to get my essays published beyond my own personal blog. Being away from home and my family gave me permission to write about some hard things that I’d avoided. Being surrounded by writers made me braver.

I’m not cured, though. I’m in the middle of doing chapter edits for my book, which requires an almost painful level of vulnerability. There have been a few moments this spring when I’ve thought, “Well, I tried. Retreat!” The important thing, though, is that I didn’t actually retreat.  

 When I remember that my brain means well , but isn’t always trustworthy, I make braver decisions. I can then tell the survivalist part of my brain, “Thank you for looking out for me, but I’ve got this. You can take your break. Go get yourself a cupcake and I’ll come find you later.”  When I don’t listen to fear and keep chugging along instead, I am rewarded with real growth.  Onward is my best, and only, option. 

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  • I love this! You are right. Our brains are wired to keep us safe, not happy. I always appreciate your insight. Keep writing!