The other evening we had a friend over for dinner and the subject of childhood fears came up. She explained that her daughter, who’s 5, had been very afraid of a fire breaking out in their house. That is, she said, until they made a plan for dealing with fires that included things like the locations of fire extinguishers, evacuation routes from the house, and designated meeting places outside. Once her daughter had a plan, the mom said, fire stopped seeming so scary.
This struck me because her daughter’s relationship to fear is so different than Jay’s (and my own, too). Over the summer I made up a story for Jay most nights before bed. The story—at his request—usually involved some kind of elaborate vehicle that could do things like go underwater, dig deep holes, climb mountains, and, always, go really fast.
Each night the vehicle would go on some kind of adventure—like a race across the desert or to rescue a lost animal—and in the course of the journey, challenges would come, like a flat tire or a snowstorm. Jay always responded the same way, by inventing some new feature for the vehicle that let it overcome whatever was in its way. Except once, when the car and its driver stopped for lunch at a diner, and robbers came to break into the car. Jay stopped me and told me, very seriously, that there can’t be any bad guys in the story. I protested at first—every good story needs bad guys—but Jay insisted, so the robbers went away.
And that, I would say, is how Jay prefers to deal with all kinds of bad thoughts—through a kind of magical logic that makes the scary thing easy to overcome, or denies it altogether. It sounds like a childish approach, except of course adults do it all the time, too.
Recently there was a shooting a few miles from our house in which a pedestrian, a freshman at the University of South Carolina, was caught by a stray bullet and paralyzed. My first instinct after reading that story was to search for ways that the freshman was different from me—her age, maybe, or the time of day she was out, or the color of her skin—anything that would let me believe that the random tragedy that had struck her, couldn’t happen to me.
Lately I’ve been thinking about adult life as one big coping strategy. The older you get, the more you become aware of the awful things that can happen, and the more you realize you’re not exempt from them anymore than the next person is. Yet we all still have to get out of bed each day, we have to build our lives even knowing that it can all be undone in a stroke. And I think a lot of the things we do are motivated by a desire to find ways to insulate ourselves from the sense of imminent chaos.
I thought about this while watching commercials during the World Series. Samsung had this advertisement that ran frequently for its new tablet computer. You can watch it below. The commercial features a family and shows all the ways that the tablet facilitates their lives: the dad lounges on a couch and trades stocks, two brothers fist bump after some kind of multimedia triumph, the mom videochats with her mom about a stuffing recipe, the whole family dances together and then sits down to watch a movie retrieved via app.
As the scenes go by, music builds, and the message is clear: This product will take the messy, uncertain reality of your life and transform it into something neat, orderly, and purposeful. It’s a powerful message that definitely moved me a little closer to buying a tablet. But it’s also a trick. A tablet computer isn’t going to make you immune to cancer or less likely to get hit by stray bullets. It’s not going to resolve the uncertainty that comes with raising kids or the difficulty of finding a way to be happy. It’s the kind of magic tool Jay might invent to make problems go away, except this one you can buy for $400.
Coping strategies get a bad name, as a form of denial, a way to distract ourselves from the things we don’t want to see. But they’re also a necessary part of life, and in one sense maybe the whole of life. It’s interesting to think of the diversity of ways people choose to live their lives, as different responses to the same underlying problem.