The Big Wave Theory

by Jennifer Paros

“The greatest evil that can befall man is that he should come to think ill of himself.” 

                                     -- Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

Illustration by Jennifer Paros - Copyright 2009

Recently, my youngest son came home with math homework.  Usually, he brings home a page, but on this day he was to complete four sheets.  Although he does do his work, he is often resistant about having to, and this time was no different. 

He approached this bigger assignment in the same manner he often approaches the smaller ones, and soon found himself running behind.  After dinner he returned to the work but immediately fell to panicking, as it now seemed difficult as well as too long.  The more upset he got, the less he could focus, the less he could focus, the harder the work seemed, the harder the work seemed the more he despaired he could not do it, the more he despaired he could not do it, the more he panicked.  And so it went. 

His father and I tried to calm the waters, but there was a lot of emotional momentum.  For my son, it was completely overwhelming.  With clenched fist, he held and cursed the thin packet of 4th grade math as though his arch nemesis had cleverly disguised itself as fraction practice.  And somewhere in the unexpected amount of work and in the uncertainty about how to do it, came the thought that he couldn’t do it.   

After blaming others, the circumstances, and time, he settled on blaming himself and his brain, both of whom he perceived as inadequate to the task.  I explained that being in an upset state runs interference; there was nothing wrong with him, he had just gotten thrown off emotionally and so couldn’t think clearly at the moment. 

More tears and a little more talk, the dust settled, and the work, which had seemed Impossible, Undoable, Too Much, and Unfair just minutes before, now was being done with relative ease and speed.  He could hardly believe it himself.  His mind had produced such a compelling argument for his limitations and his emotions had reacted in such an understandable way to this argument, that he had gotten knocked over and down by the wave of what he thought was homework, but was really just his own perception.

Same homework, same kid, same circumstance.  Nothing had changed, but now everything was different.

When I was a little girl my family would sometimes vacation at the ocean.  And although I always wanted to go in the water and play, over time I found myself fearful whenever I’d see a big wave coming. I resisted diving into it, and running away didn’t work because of the strong undertow.  Instead, I’d get knocked down and pushed under. Over time the idea of potentially overwhelming things looming on the horizon became part of my unconscious vernacular for how I perceived my experience in general, not just at the beach.  And what happens next started to seem more like a threat than potential for the new and expansive because I believed that what happened had the power to control how I felt.  And so, good things would make me feel good and bad things would make me feel bad.   And it was my job, somehow, to try and avoid or prevent the bad things. 

As writers we are often primed for the idea that our book not finding a publisher, receiving rejection letters, getting feedback or reviews that are less than effusive have the power to make us feel bad.  But what are the waves that seem to knock us down really made of? 

Within each step of the writing process-- from putting down notes, starting the first chapter, and asserting our commitment to finishing a project all the way, to seeking publication, promotion, reviews, and sales-- all kinds of things can loom large.  But in the end, those “waves” are nothing in comparison to the power of what we choose to think of ourselves during it all.   

My son’s homework wasn’t reduced to a page and made magically easy, fun, and fast.  It didn’t need to be.  The homework wasn’t the wave that had actually knocked him down in the first place.  When he shifted his thoughts, he was finally able to work with what was happening-- as no thing had ever held any power over him, only his own perception.

Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle.

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