• Lijing Cobb

To the rescue

We were all in the kitchen. I was preparing lunch, my kids around the lunch table. My 10yo's chair slipped and I heard her crash and scream. Immediately I rushed to her asking, "are you ok?"

She's ok, but that's beside the point. You see, a reaction as normal as that, that was a first for me.

I was never really able to avail myself to people in crisis like this before, immediate, heartfelt, offering help and comfort, making sure that they feel good and safe before leaving them to their own devices again. Not even to my own children. Not that I didn't care before. I just was never able to bring myself to "make a fuss" when something unfortunate happened to others. And boy, how I longed for the moment when I could do exactly that, like I have watched so many times in movies and real life, other loving people rushing to loved ones and strangers alike to help them in a moment of need.

I wanted to feel that surge of compassion in my heart that would naturally propel my feet to rush towards the scene of suffering. Yet time and again when such a scene unfolded right before my eyes, all I could feel was my heart steeling up against itself, as the icy tentacles of indifference spread and the coolheaded calculation took over. Some of the thoughts that would pop into my head were, "They must have done something wrong for this to happen." "It happened, what's the use of making a fuss. Just deal with it and move on." "It's not that bad. Stop exaggerating!"

But no matter what I said to myself or how many times I said it, I've never stopped imagining that one day, the person who rushes to the rescue of the one in need would be me. I pitied the person who failed to act but found all sorts of excuses to justify her inaction. I can still see her frozen in moments of crises, an icy frost spreading across her chest like a poison. If only I could have told her many moons ago that it was not her fault. That she should not have secretly nursed that guilt for all those years. That the time it took for her to travel through all that darkness and cold to get to the warm and sunny spot of yesterday was the journey to a good place.

We are who we are because of our past. The other day as we sat around the dinner table we talked about nature vs. nurture, and as my son was having a hard time really grasping the difference, I used the following analogy:

"Imagine that you take two seeds that are exactly the same, and you put them in two different pots. In one pot you put good soil, you water and feed it when needed, you give it the light that is best suited for that seed, you take care of it when it's sick, and you talk to it in loving words. Now in the other pot you put very little soil, dry and nasty. You ignore it, only water and feed it when you remembered (and most of the time you forgot), and when it's sick you don't do anything about it. What do you think would happen to these two seeds that are the same?"

"The seed that's taken care of would grow strong and beautiful. The seed that's ignored would probably be sickly and maybe even die soon." My son replied, and then praised me that I was a good explainer.

I was a seed put in a pot with little soil. I had food and water when I needed them. I had whooping cough during the fall for several years when I was little, and I was mortified to cough at night because my dad would get so angry at me that I was afraid for my life. The words that I heard throughout my childhood were mostly words of insult, abuse, and hurt hurled at each other as weapons carelessly, ceaselessly.

I grew up, physically strong. Emotionally, I was all sorts of ill. There was a thick slimy layer of poison covering the walls of my heart, oozing, dripping, threatening, waiting.

We are who we are because of what we do this very moment. As sentient beings with opposable thumbs and a consciousness that learns and grows, we have the ability to grow out of the shadows of the past and into the sunlight of the present. As children we are like house plants that rely on the mercy of our owners to take care of us (or not). As adults we are like trees in the wild, planting ourselves in the best available spot for our growth, always turning towards the sun, growing leaves and flowers when the time is right, offering shade and bearing fruits when we can, shedding leaves and conserving energy when necessary.

You see, for a while I was stuck in the transition from being a house plant to being a tree in the wild. I knew I was in the wild, but I didn't know how to thrive here. I survived as a house plant, and I continued to survive as a tree in the wild. I kept expecting to be ignored and insulted. I didn't know I could thrive now. I didn't know that I could shed my identity as a house plant completely and claim independence from all that is not good for me. I didn't know that I now wield tremendous power over my own house plants.

Last Valentine's Day, at Trader Joe's, I bought two lavender plants. In the drab of winter I was yearning for colors, and the tiny blooms of those babies comforted my heart. I had never been able to make myself care enough to grow house plants. When we got our basement finished about 7 years ago, I bought live plants from IKEA and put them on the window sills in the basement as decorations, but soon forgot to water them. They still sit there today as poignant reminders of who I used to be. But somehow those tiny blooms of Valentine lavender spoke to me and held onto a heartstring. On Mother's Day I went to several nurseries and got myself many a pot and many a plant, condoned by my doting husband. In subsequent months I have made so many more trips to get more plants that my kids solemnly swore that these said stores should ban me as a customer forever.

My plants teach me many lessons. Two of them stand out:

  1. I can choose to care for something and make it thrive. Or I can choose to ignore something and let it die. The choice is mine.

  2. Different plants like different houses. Some won't live in my house no matter what I do, but I can make some others very happy.

My special Valentine.

Our kitchen window

My bedroom sanctuary

Then I realized that I'm living as my plants do. When they bloom I smile. When they thirst I dry.

I realized that I need them just as much as they need me.

I realized that the act of giving precipitates reciprocity.

I realized that I have love, and my love is precious. I'm not only worthy of love, but capable of giving it to others.

In other words, yesterday when my daughter's chair took a slip and she crashed to the ground, I knew in that very moment that my love was all she needed to get back up and feel good again. The slimy wall of poison around my heart was no longer there to freeze my act of compassion. In the moment when my feet rushed me to her side, I knew we were worthy of each other's love in every sense of the word.

As if to test the solidity of my new-found self-worth, my other two kids found situations for me to exercise compassion organically on the same day. After lunch, my 7yo started to mop the floor after she ran the dogs outside and muddy paws got back in the house. With my back to her in the middle of reading some good words, I heard the stool she was standing on slip, and she was on the floor screaming. "Are you ok?" I was by her side in an instant and found her little hand covering the left side of her face. Sobbing she told me that she had hit her face on the handle of the mop when she fell to the floor. I offered to kiss it and asked her if she thinks me licking the spot would magically take the pain away. The thought of me licking her tickled her and she started giggling, and when she threw her little arms around me and squeezed me, I told her that I loved her and that she was ok.

In the evening my son and I ran into a situation where he repeatedly ignored my well-intentioned suggestions and patient nudging, to the point where I knew I no longer wanted to suffer it. I told him that I was done with him for the day. That he could choose to do what he pleased and bear the consequences. That if he ran into problems he could go to his dad for help but not me. And then I left him to go back to my own room to calm down. He followed me upstairs, stood behind me silently, and insisted without a word for me to open back up again. So I turned to him and told him that his actions had hurt me tremendously. I said that it felt like I had told him to put down a knife, but he kept holding onto it, and then he stabbed me in my heart with the knife, over and over again, until the pain became unbearable. And I didn't want to bleed anymore. Our tears met, and he told me that he had felt so sorry he hurt me that he couldn't speak. I hugged him, we talked it out, eye to eye, and in the end agreed that we will both try our best to be good to each other.

These are cathartic, healing moments for me. Private, yet I want as many people to know as possible, because such moments of life are miracles of hope that teach us that we can indeed thrive in the wild. No longer am I pining for my owner to care for me so that I can grow strong and beautiful. I know that I have all that I need in me to live this life and share who I am.

We can only be available to others if we save ourselves first. To the rescue is not something a drowning man can do for another drowning soul. I am washing the walls to my heart with good intentions every day, and one day, I will see my heart as it is, in all its unobstructed magnificence.

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