This post is about the powerful impact that allowing yourself to be present in the moment can have on your mental health, and on your family (and how your kitchen can help). On Saturday morning I had caught myself, for the hundredth time in 24 hours, glancing at my iPhone looking for information about the Friday massacre of children. This time when I looked up I saw my one year old standing in front of me, waiting and watching my face with anticipation. My mind had been consumed with feelings and thoughts about my children, and yet I didn’t even know how long she’d been standing there.
Overwhelmed with sadness, the tragedy in Connecticut has also filled me with fear. As a former elementary school teacher, I imagine myself trying to protect my young students from the brutal assault. As a parent, I imagine myself racing to school from work to try to find my child. Although I am a psychotherapist now, fear grips my mind and I feel helpless. I ruminate over these thoughts, imagining what it was like for others, imagining what could still happen, because somewhere in my mind there’s a belief that thinking about it will prepare me for the worst. If something horrible happens, I will be ready. Or so my irrational mind tells itself.
In reality, there is no way to mentally prepare for something as horrific as the events in Newtown. We do ourselves, and our families, no justice by ruminating about the past or future. If the purpose of discussing the past or the future is productive and helps us to heal or to plan, then obviously that should happen. Otherwise, research has shown that people are most content when their attention is on whatever is happening in the moment. The best I can do for myself and for my children, today and for every day they are with me, is to pay attention to the present.
But staying in the moment is hard. Even on a day without an overwhelming awareness of tragedy I find it difficult. Sitting in the living room, folding clothes in their bedrooms, my mind wanders and other things start to seem more important, more meaningful than what’s right in front of me. If I am feeling anxious or irritable it’s even harder to stay in the moment. It’s as though my mind is saying, “if we just think about the horrible thing one more time, we’ll resolve the problem and then we can feel better.” Instead, rumination keeps my mind, like a gerbil running on its wheel, spinning around but going nowhere.
Throughout my life, one way I have found to keep my attention centered in the present is to cook. The complexity of the tasks, as well as the sensory stimulation make it harder to obsess about problems at work or a disagrement with my mother or what we’re going to buy our nieces and nephews for Christmas. My children’s enthusiasm for cooking, as well as their natural lack of ruminative thinking, adds to my focus. Even if the project at hand is not well thought through, a calm cuts through the chaos and I find myself engrossed. As we work side by side, my kids and I meet each other in the moment. They feel heard and seen and I feel more content because for a few moments I’ve interrupted the cycle of worry.
Once I noticed my distracted mind on Saturday and recognized how it was taking my attention away from my kids, I decided to go in to the kitchen with them to work on a project. We made salt dough ornaments. My four year old and I kneaded dough together, rolled it out and selected our favorite cookie cutters. When we weren’t talking it was because we were carefully peeling the dough back from around ornaments, or cautiously laying them out on a cooking sheet to bake. My one year old didn’t help, but she sat next to us in her high chair playing with cups and chattering happily. I find she’s often a barometer for the mood in the room.
I support initiatives to immediately examine our country’s priorities and to harness our collective anger and outrage. If we can use that energy for positive change, then let’s hold on to it tightly until that happens. Between moments of opportunity for social change it will not, however, help us or our families if our thoughts are always somewhere else, fueled by and fueling emotional pain. The pain will not go away, nor should it. Attempts to resolve the pain by looking at my iPhone, or allowing my mind to obsess about the past or future will not work.
During this time of reflection the best way for us to stay strong, for ourselves and for our children, is to stay present.
From the Red Cross:
” The Red Cross joins all in keeping the families and community in our thoughts and prayers. Right now, the Red Cross has what it needs to support response efforts. If people want to make a donation to support the affected families, the United Way of Western Connecticut has created a Sandy Hook School Support Fund. For more information, visit https://newtown.uwwesternct.org/.”
The Newtown Post Office in Newtown, Conn. has created a postal box for people to send care packages, condolences and letters:
Messages of Condolence for Newtown
P.O. Box 3700
Newtown, Connecticut 06470