There’s a story that my mom loves to tell about me to just about anyone who will listen. It reflects my valor, independence, and intelligence. Or so the legend goes..
The story goes like this: we were on a skiing trip, I was about seven or eight, I believe, maybe a bit younger. I was one of these kids who would go straight down the mountain, apparently fearless, wizzing by my permanently-pizza-skied father. “Bye daddy” is the famous line I dropped as I sped down the hill.
But by the time my parents reached the bottom (it took my dad quite a while), I was nowhere to be found. Whenever this happened (this was not the first or last time), my mom would turn on her you-mother-effers-better-get-off-your-asses-and-find-my-baby motherly instinct, and would lead a community search party until I was found.
The search went on for an hour or so before they decided to check an unlikely place— the hotel room. And when they got inside, there was little Justy, sleeping in the bed.
When I awoke, I explained, in my defense, that I was getting bored waiting for my dad to descend this apparently challenging “green” slope. And, feeling tired, I had decided, like an aspiring Kevin Macalister, go to the front desk and ask for an extra key.
And so, my mom goes on telling this story, declaring with pride its obvious implications: my fearlessness, autonomy, and wit. What an amazing little boy.
BUT, WHAT I FIND curiously missing from my little legend are all the other, far less glamorous stories that, if told, would reveal a near opposite set of qualities. Qualities like fearfulness, hopeless dependence, cry-baby-ish-ness, perennial bed-wetter-ness, and, in some cases, utter stupidity.
In anticipation of Mother’s Day, I started think about why exactly my mom, a reliably honest woman, would continue peddling these misleading stories. Ones that, at their very best, reflect merely half of my personality.
I mean, it’s not like my mom doesn’t know the other, thornier tales. The ones that would prove the, perhaps, weaker side of my nature.
After all, no one would know better than her the times, even far past the age of seven or eight, where I would cry out for her, homesick from sleep-away camp (goys, ask your Jewish friend what this is). Indeed, she was the one from whom the camp’s director had to peel my clinging, pleading arms.
What kind of fearless, independent boy would do that?
And no one would know better the nights, far past the age of 10, when, like Fuller, I would “wet the bed.” Indeed, it was her I would wake up every time.
That seems to suggest more vulnerability than strength.
Or how about the night when I broke down crying because I didn’t know how to start a school project that was due the next day? My mom surely is aware of that time – it was she who basically did the thing for me.
Even on the ski mountain— my supposed stage of valor and excellence— my courage was more often fleeting than steadfast. Sure, I was fearless when it came to being on a green slope with the sun shining. But, let there be bumps, or, far worse, foul weather— a blizzard, or even merely a dark sky, some wind— and I would cling to my mother, frozen and powerless.
Where were those stories? They easily outnumber the heroic tales but remain absent from cocktail parties and camp-fires.
So what’s the explanation? Was my mother merely lying about me? Trying to spread half-truths about her son, though she knew better, in an attempt to make me seem better than I was? Was she doing it for my ego? For her own?
One possible answer is in what psychologists call “fundamental attribution error.” This is a bias of the human mind where we attribute qualities to someone’s character that are more accurately explained by a matter of context or circumstance.
For example, we may say of someone, “he’s so cheap” or “she’s so cold,” based on our experience with them, and conclude that is simply “who they are.” But, in other contexts, among other people, they may be considered the most generous, warm, and kind of the bunch. We make an error, therefore, in concluding some action, in some circumstance, is a reflection of someone’s permanent identity. In reality, the personality is much more fluid.
So is this true? Had my mother been simply making an error?
Well, of course not. We already know that she knows better than anyone my times of vulnerability, clinginess, and struggle.
So what’s the explanation?
ONE OF MY FAVORITE quotes is one attributed to the German writer, Goethe. It describes my theory on my mother and helps explain why, among so many other reasons, I am so thankful to have her as mine.
“When we treat a man as he is, we make him worse than he is; when we treat him as if he already were what he potentially could be, we make him what he should be.”
It wasn’t that my mom didn’t know of my many, many weaknesses, missteps and mishaps. She knows damn well that these tiny incidence of independence, wit, and courage are mere drops compared to a sea of less remarkable characteristics.
But, like so many great leaders, and so many great mothers, she treated me, not how I was, but how she knew I could be. She treated me in order to encourage me towards, as Lincoln famously said, the better angels of my nature.
I’m a big believer in identity. In the thought that to decide where we want to go, we first have to understand WHO we want to be. As the Arnold, the Govenator, says: Figure out first, not WHAT, but WHO you want to be. That is, the types of qualities we want to embody; want to be remembered for. And that is what my mom helped me create— an identity; a “who” I could step into.
To be clear, I don’t think this is in the way that is currently being frowned upon and said to be one of the downfalls of “Millennials.” The notion that our parents told us what we wanted to hear. Saying that we are the best, smartest little kids in the world(!!). Saying that it is not raining when it clearly is.
No, that is not what my mom was doing. She was not making up something that wasn’t there.
What she was doing, rather, was encouraging me to move closer to the sparks of strength, determination, and independence. Things that were there, if only briefly, and hinting to me that these were worthy pursuit. And, crucially, that I had the potential to become them. She simply believed in me, and it’s an irreplaceable gift.
And I totally bought in.
Of course, by no means is her work finished– there is much left to do. Not only am I still trying to claim the qualities above, but still pursuing other ones that my mom continues to encourage today: emotional intelligence, connection, listening, presence, love, and spirituality.
And so, for those, though perhaps I don’t tell her enough, I still need her. I am still depending on her to continue creating my potential identity. I am still depending on her to “treat me as I could potentially be.”
AND NOW, THINKING OF the newest mother in our family, my big sister, Marni (whom I “married”), I am hoping she takes a similar tact. I am hoping she treats baby Shay, not as he is at one given time, but as how he could potentially be. And hopefully, he’ll turn out to be one kind, silly, compassionate, wise, and gritty little bastard.
How about you? What part of you did your mother encourage and help you become? Have you thanked her? It’s a good day for it…
Happy Mother’s Day.