mind control?


I’m sitting with my six-year-old daughter as she tries to fall asleep. She’s holding my hand with hers. And she looks up at me, doe-eyed, on the verge of falling asleep, and smacks me with the following question:

“Daddy, do we control our attitude or do wishes?”

I stared at her, unable to come up with a response for a second. I have increasingly noticed that this brain paralysis occurs in response to almost any question my kids ask me. As a result, my parenting style has evolved into a persistent state of cluelessness.

Desperately trying to buy time, I asked her to clarify her question. (Three years of law school and this is by far the most useful skill I learned. Answer a question with another question to buy yourself time to not sound like a complete moron.) She responded, “I was talking with a friend, and she said I wish you [my daughter] would be nicer to me. So do we control our attitude, or does a wish?”

I answered that wishes control. I then placed leeches on her to remove the bad humors from her blood and used my expertise in phrenology to confirm that she is smarter than the average six-year-old girl. Well, I didn’t do that, but I thought about it. And then decided that this kind of response might result in the termination of my parental rights. So instead, I gave some version of the following answer:

That’s a great question! [Buying more time. Also making her feel good about asking me a question that makes me feel dumb.] Wishes don’t just make things happen unless people then try to make them come true by doing something. We’re responsible for our own attitudes, and we can’t control other people and theirs.

This sounded great at the time and she seemed satisfied. For a moment, I thought I had made a deep and far-reaching connection with my youngest child. Then she looked at me, tears in her eyes, and said, “But I wished for an indoor pool, a hot tub, and a zip line, and none of them have come true.” After gently informing her that none of those wishes were going to be granted (big letdown for her) while she lived under my roof, but that when she got old enough to get her own home she could install each of these items in her (apparently massive) abode (giving her false hope while absolving myself of ruining her evening), she quickly fell asleep, content once more.

I thought about her question for a few minutes, made sure I documented it so that I wouldn’t forget, and concluded that it would form an interesting basis for a future post. Which brings us to this gorgeous Sunday morning here in NY.

Having thought it about it some more, I’m not sure how accurate my answer to my daughter was. So let me restate the question and pursue a deeper understanding of a reasoned response.

Question: Do what others wish of/for us control our attitude? Or are we alone in charge of it?

Living with limb loss/difference gives me, I think, a unique perspective on this question. As I’ve written about extensively in the past, after losing my leg and becoming one of those “disabled people”, I spent vast reserves of energy interpreting how others saw me. I was not going to become one of Them, that hobbling, limping, wheeling population I had scarcely given a thought to in the preceding 26 years. I was still exactly the same person and would go to any length to prove it.

Helplessness was offensive. When I asked my wife, still lying in my hospital bed, “Why didn’t I just keep on driving through the intersection and call 911 when I got home 30 seconds later?”, her shrug and half-smile told me she’d asked the same question thousands of times already. From that point on, there was no looking back – only a maniacal focus on the future. My attitude became entirely forward-looking.

Statements of clinical judgment became personal affronts. Doctors told me I would walk with a cane for six months. No. Goddamn. Way. I walked outside parallel bars unassisted on my second day in a prosthesis and was walking outdoors unassisted within two weeks. My attitude about the opinions of experts  underwent some revisions.

My friends commented on how I “looked great.” I heard that as, “For a guy with only one leg, you’re doing better than I would have thought,” and launched into an obsessive rehab regimen that culminated in the completion of a 10k road race 5 months after my accident. My attitude about how I’d always defined myself – as an athlete – hardened.

In retrospect, I suspect that all anyone actually wished for me was that I would regain my mobility and live a long, active, and happy life. But with my antennae picking up signals that didn’t likely exist, everything that those close to me said and did became a challenge.

Perhaps more interesting, the opinions of those I didn’t know at all – the woman in the restaurant who saw me come in on crutches and, upon noting the absence of anything filling my left pant leg, blurted out “Oh!”, and the young boy who looked at my running prosthesis and declared me “asgusting” – profoundly shaped how I thought about myself. My attitude about when and how to mask my “amputee status” led to the creation of a complicated and internally inconsistent but entirely rational (at least to me) code of covering my prosthesis.

I attempted to rationalize my evolving attitude into a comprehensive worldview after my first 12 months as an amputee, which I can summarize as follows: how you respond to adversity defines you, and that’s a choice you make. It seemed deep to me then. Now, 15 years later, it strikes me as at best clichéd, and at worst, saccharine. But it does suggest that during my early days in the limb loss/disability world, I believed that my actions – the product of my attitude – were something I and I alone controlled.  But as I think about it today, and having just written and deleted a sentence that stood for exactly the opposite proposition, I no longer think that this is true. My experiences as a parent provide an interesting illustration of this evolution.

The attitudes of my three kids are entirely unique. If you couldn’t see how similar they looked and just talked to them on the phone for an hour, you would soon ask yourself, “Are these children even related?” One is always waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the bad news to swallow up the good. Another glides through every day with preternatural assurance and confidence. And the third cannily watches events unfold, finding just the right leverage and timing to exert maximum influence. One waits for bad things to happen, one assumes that everything will be ok, and the last attempts to create a world that’s uniquely personalized.

(To illustrate how child 3, my daughter, operates, the following story – a true story, in fact, at least until the point that I  die – is instructive. I land in Florida for business this past February. I climb in the cab and call home. My wife tells me Caroline wants to speak to me. She gets on the phone and says, “Daddy, I have a question.”

“How can I help you, Bug?”, I ask. (For those of you wondering, Bug is her nickname and Caroline her given name. It’s not the other way around.)

“Daddy,” she says, seriousness lying heavy in her little voice, “who do you love more: me or mommy?”

Now understand, I am a ninja when it comes to this kind of question. I have gone to a fine liberal arts school. I have attended law school. I have been with the same woman since 1986. I have run a small business and currently lead the US Legal Department for an international medical device company. I don’t hesitate a second: “Honey,” I say confidently, “I love you both equally.”

It turns out, however, that my daughter is also a ninja. And unlike her father, who’s a ninja by training, she’s a freak, a prodigy. Because just as quickly as I give my answer, she fires back with, “No, daddy – it’s ok. You can tell me. I promise, I won’t say anything.”

I’m now in the back of the cab, dumbstruck. I’ve hit her with everything I’ve got. I’ve executed my best strike, honed through years of training and repetition. And she has responded with the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique, which I’ve never been taught. I’m already dead – I just haven’t taken the requisite number of steps yet for my heart to explode. I stammer, “I’m . . . I’m not going to answer that question, Bug.”

She’s lethal: “Daddy [now whispering], I’m serious. You can tell me. It’s ok. I won’t say anything to mommy. I promise.”

Match over. I lie in the back of the cab. Dead. Caroline is laughing into my now unhearing ear, saying again, “Really, you can tell me, daddy. I’ll keep it a secret.”)

Back to the main theme: these kids had the same parents. They’ve lived, for the most part, in the same house. They’ve attended the same schools and had the same teachers. The basic rules and principles that control life in our little world haven’t changed significantly between child number one and child number three. From this, I can only conclude that attitude is in substantial part hard-wired into us long before we start asking questions like the one my daughter asked me.

So while, egoist that I am, I have a strong self-deterministic streak that compels me to reflexively conclude that I am both responsible for and in fact do control my own attitude, a closer analysis suggests to me that, for better or for worse, my attitude was always at some level what it is today. I didn’t respond to my accident the way I did only because I made a series of conscious decisions after the accident, but rather, because my attitude and worldview before the accident put me in a position to make those decisions.

Stated another way, the accident influenced my attitude. Profoundly. It forced me to ask fundamental questions – for example, why am I still here? – and pay attention to those around me in a way I never had before. While those experiences no doubt shaped my attitude, they never controlled it. And I’m not sure I did either.

So Caroline, when you come back to this fundamental philosophical question at an age where indoor swimming pools, hot tubs and swimming pools are no longer the primary drivers of your inquiry, I hope you stumble upon this in the blogosphere and get something out of it. Because it’s highly likely by then that I’ll have forgotten the answer. And if you ask me the question then, I’ll have moved past the current temporary brain paralysis to more involved distraction techniques. Or I’ll pretend to be asleep.

I’m not proud of that. But at least I’m being honest. That’s part of my attitude.

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