“Dad! I can ride a bicycle on my own! Look! Look!” Your daughter is screaming, and you’re grinning, bursting with pride.
“Wonderful!” you say as you scoop her into a bear hug.
“Mom! I made soup and sandwiches for dinner,” your son says, and your heart swells with pride at his thoughtfulness.
‘Good’ things have happened: your daughter can now ride a bike, and your son can put together a meal, however basic.
“I didn’t get selected for the dance!” he wails.
A pang goes through you. Your child is hurting. “That’s terrible…” You want to help your child live through this ‘bad’ incident.
Your child learns to label things events people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ early in life – and keeps applying these labels to every event person situation throughout his and her life. I want to add a third option. Things might also be ‘I-don’t-know’.
So here is the choice of labels: the good, the bad and the I-don’t-know. For years, I would label things as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (Where do you think kids learn to label? From their parents. 🙂 ) And then, to my daughter’s frustration, I became an ‘I-don’t-know’ parent.
“It’s awful, isn’t it?” she’d ask about something.
“Maybe, I don’t know.” I’d say.
The turning point was a Sufi story I read many years ago. Here it is:
An old man lived in a cave in the mountains. There was a village close to the foothills, whose villagers visited the silent old man from time to time. As far as anyone knew, he had never come down the mountain. Nobody knew how he lived, where he found his food or what he did all day, but he seemed content in his cave. Over time, the old man acquired a holy patina, and people began to visit him to ‘get their desires fulfilled’. The old man never said anything, but the villagers left his cave satisfied.
So a man might visit the old man with a loaf of bread, asking for a good job. He would sit with the old man in silence for a while and descend the mountain, feeling his wish had been granted. In some time, he would perhaps find some work, and feel that the old man had been instrumental in his gaining employment.
In this manner, the old man began to gain a reputation.
One day, an old woman who had a young able-bodied son went to visit the old man. She was bemoaning the fact that her son had broken his leg and would not be able to till their field. This had happened at a very inopportune time, because they would miss the planting season and would not have a harvest, meaning near-starvation for them in the future. “Find some way out,” she said to the old man.
He kept silent as usual. For some reason, the woman wanted a verbal assurance from him, which he wouldn’t give. “What a terrible thing he broke his leg, isn’t it?” she repeated again and again. The old man realized that she wouldn’t go away unless he said something. The next time she repeated, “What a terrible thing he broke his leg, isn’t it?” he spoke.
“Maybe, maybe not,” he said.
The woman was so taken aback and horrified at this unsympathetic reaction that she left immediately. She told all the villagers that the old man had lost his head. People stopped visiting him.
Ten days later, the kingdom was attacked by a neighboring ruler. The king sent his men to round up every able-bodied man to join the army. The old woman’s son had a broken leg, so he was left behind.
Full of joy (and contrition), the old woman took a jug of milk to the old man at the top of the mountain. “Now I see what you meant. We will manage somehow for one season with less food. But if my son had been sent to fight, he would surely have died, because he knows nothing of fighting –he is a farmer. It is good that he broke his leg. At least his life has been spared.”
Again she insisted the old man agree that it was good that her son had broken his leg.
Eventually, the old man responded, “Maybe, maybe not.”
The woman was enraged again. She swept down the mountain in a fury.
When a sudden storm swept through the village, the old woman’s son couldn’t seek shelter in time because of his broken leg. As a result, he suffered further injuries from the house falling down around him.
The woman went back up the mountain: “My son could not even seek shelter in time, and now he has even more injuries all over his body. Isn’t it so bad that he broke his leg?”
The old man said, “Maybe, maybe not.”
The woman couldn’t believe her ears, and left, promising herself that she would never again visit the crazy old man.
Then a miracle medicine man passed through the village. He said he had only one dose of his miracle cure, and out of common humanity, he would give it to the person who was suffering the most. That person was the old woman’s son. He took the miracle dose and was instantaneously restored to full health.
The woman ran up the mountain, her heart full of gratitude. “Thank you,” she said to the old man in the cave. “Had my son not broken his leg and then been injured in the storm, he would not have been a candidate for the miracle drug. Now he’s fine! Isn’t that a good thing?”
The old man’s response was characteristic: “Maybe, maybe not.”
And so I became an ‘I-don’t-know’ parent. I believe it is one of the most valuable and enduring gifts I can give my child – the recognition that there is a third option to ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
As an I-don’t-know parent, I am more balanced emotionally, more accepting, more at peace, more content.
You might want to try it – just once – as an experiment, and see how it goes. Will it work? I don’t know! Maybe, maybe not! 🙂