It’s bedtime. I steer my daughter into the bathroom to brush her teeth. She is whining about how she didn’t get to watch her favorite show. “Brush your teeth,” I tell her. She flops to the floor and says she’s too tired to move. “Hurry and brush your teeth,” I say, “So we have time to read.”
She scowls, “I hate reading.”
I don’t react.
“I do. I hate to read,” she says, pulling out all the stops in frustration. “And I had the worst day ever because I didn’t get to watch my favorite show, and nobody would play with me at recess, and you never play with me anymore. I’m not very happy.”
It is here at this crossroads, a familiar place in our bedtime routine I call Pajama Junction, where I pause and weigh my options: Do I appease her? Oh, sweetie, you can watch your show tomorrow, and I’ll play anything you want if you’ll just brush those teeth. Do I ignore the drama and calmly repeat myself? Brush, please, brush. Do I play the tough mom and yell at her, while increasing the level of damaging stress hormones in my own tired body? Do I turn and walk away, entrusting her with dental hygiene discretion?
I have taken each of these paths before, without notable success. So, instead, I tell her a story:
To overcome an extreme fear of flying, my husband (her father) enrolled in an anxiety disorder workshop. Apparently common and straightforward to treat, phobias are a mainstay of clinical success stories. Workshop attendees are desensitized to their respective fear by repeated exposure in progressively realistic settings.
The culmination of the therapy was finally facing the real situation or object, thus, theoretically, dissolving any irrational distress. The anecdote to my husband’s phobia involved purchasing an airplane ticket, boarding the plane, and—using workshop-sanctioned relaxation techniques—becoming a docile passenger for the duration of the flight.
My husband bought a ticket for a twenty-five minute commuter route from Flint, MI to Detroit. He lived with the anxiety of the impending trip for a week (the recommended time to absolve the physical manifestation of fear). On travel day, he arrived at the gate just in time to board (as recommended by his therapist); the doors of the aircraft were closing as he took his seat—aisle, not window.
My husband sat next to a woman who let him know right away this was her first time in an airplane. She chattered on about drive times versus flight times, airport security, and ticket fares. She did pause to listen when the flight attendant gave the safety demonstration, then promptly resumed her one-sided conversation. My husband was too nervous to speak.
Small plane, short flight. Takeoff was quick, cruising altitude was low. The woman fixed herself at the window and slapped my husband’s arm, “You can see my house from here!”
My husband looked out at the grids of parceled land, plotted subdivisions, and linear thoroughfares. If they crashed now, nothing—not even the oblong, inland lakes underneath them, would cushion the impact. He was hopelessly not in control. My husband’s anxiety plateaued in the resignation of his certain and impending death.
His seatmate, on the other hand, was having the time of her life. She possessed the fine-tuned ability to suspend knowledge of an assessed risk in order to tolerate a situation. She knew there wasn’t a darn thing she could do to ensure their arrival on the ground, so why bother worrying? She trusted the pilot and crew to do their jobs, she believed the statistics about the safety of air travel, and she chose not to waste energy on futile pursuits. This woman, his seatmate, was an optimist.
My husband noted later that he and his seatmate were parallel travelers, who would (and did) arrive at their destination simultaneously. Same start, same finish, but what about the middle? The in-between created the experience. Did my husband’s terror in the minutes, hours, and days preceding the trip superstitiously inoculate the flight from demise? Did madam seatmate’s naïve trust buy their safe passage? Of course not. So, if the outcome is beyond effect, why not be cheerful about it?
By now, my daughter has wrapped herself in the bathroom rug like a burrito and is blinking up at me. I have gone off like Rosanne Rosannadanna in the old Saturday Night Live skits, retrofitting one of my favorite life-lesson stories to fit our Pajama Junction dilemma. The point, I tell her, is that you’re going to have to brush your teeth anyway, so you might as well do it with gusto and glory. Climb aboard that aircraft and trust the universe; put your wings out and brush like you don’t want any cavities.