Studies have been done of resilient children – kids who have faced down tough times and survived intact. They share one key finding: These kids locate surrogates – replacements – for what is otherwise missing in their lives.
Whether it’s a teacher or a neighbor or an uncle or a grandparent – somehow, these scrappy little children overcome difficult circumstances to find someone to take care of them, to love them, so they can find a way to love themselves.
The challenges these kids face can be pretty severe – physical, verbal and sexual abuse, neglect, parents who are missing or mentally ill or addicted to alcohol or drugs. By some miracle, they find what they need to survive and make their way forward to happy, healthy lives.
One year ago today, an old friend of mine from high school, Shin, died of breast cancer. She couldn’t have been much over forty, and left behind a husband and two young children.
Shin and I reconnected in the days and weeks before she died. She was in Singapore and I’m in New York, but thanks to the internet, we were able to video chat regularly. Towards the end she was having trouble breathing, so I spoke and she typed her replies.
When I realized Shin was dying, I expected that my role, as her old friend the therapist, would entail simply listening and being there for her. Knowing Shin, I should have realized how much she had to teach me about what it means to be alive, to love, and to care for others.
Again and again, Shin repeated to me that her children were the most important thing to her. Josie and Toby were very young, and she knew it would be devastating for them to lose their mother.
She created a sort of ritual as a way to prepare them – taking the children aside each day and asking them the same question:
They answered as she’d taught them, by pointing to their hearts.
“That’s where I’ll always be,” she said. And she held them tight.
Shin knew what she was doing. She understood that her kids had a terrific dad – but they were going to lose their mother soon, and they’d need somewhere to go to process that loss. They would need to look within themselves.
Studies of resilient children overlook another place where tough little kids find the love they need to survive. They don’t just locate it in neighbors and uncles and teachers – they also find it within their own hearts.
You have a little kid inside you – the same kid you used to be. And that kid needs love. You’ll never receive everything you need from the outside. Even the best parent or parent-substitute can provide only some of what a child needs.
The rest has to come from you.
When Shin taught Josie and Toby that Momma would always live in their hearts, she placed her own strength within them, setting them on a path towards self-sufficiency. The unconditional love of their dying mother will remain within them forever – a well to draw on when times get tough. They will never forget that there was a young woman named Shin, who was their mother, and that she loved them absolutely.
Shin’s goal was to place a love in her children that would evolve into a love for themselves – to make them secure in the conviction that they deserved care.
You need to find a way to love yourself, or you cannot survive. You need to hear that message from within your own breast – that someone cares for you, and always will, no matter what.
Maybe you’re not always at your best. Maybe you have regrets, and remorse. Maybe it feels like there isn’t much love out there for you sometimes.
But there is a child within you. He means no one any harm. Offer him your love – carry it within you.
You can be a resilient kid. You can stay conscious, and be your best self, and love the best, most authentic you.
You can be deserving of love – love from within your own heart.
Just like Josie and Toby.