Children always melt my heart. They are so often, at the same time, vulnerable and trusting. They are the new visitors to our home planet, and they look to us for a sense of safety and acceptance. We see them move gingerly, at first, out into the world. From the womb, into the welcoming arms of parents, they explore wider circles as they grow. They learn trust when Mom or Dad is always there to reassure them when they become frightened or hurt. The trust they develop in the safety of their home environment often forms the basis for the trust they will feel in the world. If home is not safe, nowhere is safe, and from early on the child learns to build a protective wall around him or herself. The heart still feels, still experiences delight and pain, but this occurs more and more behind the closed doors of an expressionless exterior.
As adults, an extension of the expressionless exterior may be the ability to intellectualize at length, without accessing feelings at all. The child built walls to defend against feelings of helplessness, and the adult maintains them for the same reason. After a lifetime of suppressing emotions and developing the skills to sidestep them, their presence can set off alarm bells. Rising emotions trigger feelings of childlike vulnerability. If the child could not trust the parent to remove that vulnerability by offering reassurance and protection, the adult certainly will not trust the one to whom he or she is closest. This is why it can be easier to talk to a friend or therapist, because you can count on unconditional support in most cases.
If you or I were to meet a child who seemed shy or intimidated, we would do everything possible to make that child feel safe and comfortable. Most of us have an instinctive desire to protect children or animals who are vulnerable. What we may fail to realize, far too often, is that the vulnerable child still exists within all of us. Yes, we have developed strength, and all of those adult competencies. We may be empowered and actualized. We may even be enlightened. The little cracks, however, that developed when we were small, can still widen given sufficient pressure. It is important for us to have compassion and acceptance of our own vulnerabilities, and to be unafraid to let others know we have them. It is the essence of compassion to respond with gentleness to the pain and dis-ease of others. The pretense we perpetuate externally in our culture of being so strong and together does a great disservice to all, for it cuts us off from support and alignment with our own humanness. It is only when we have the courage to release the tidy façade constructed by ego that we can enter into genuine connection with one another. The more we can do that, the more we tap into the experience of one heart/one mind, in which we all participate. The frightened child will run to our arms, and surrender to our caring embrace.
Vulnerable adults are more likely to withdraw, to become angry, or behave defensively. Why is that? Somewhere along the line we have made it unsafe or unacceptable to show our true feelings, and therefore perpetuate the practice of suppressing or subverting them. Maybe that is why so many adults abuse drugs, alcohol, food and even technology, while children have tantrums, cry, ask for hugs, and roll giggling on the floor when something is funny. They have not yet developed strong egos, and really do not care what anyone thinks of their emotions. They express them, and then move on.
Dr. Seuss said that adults are obsolete children. If that is so, what may have made us obsolete may be our efforts to ‘try to be’ something, rather than just being who we are. If we want to relax into a more real, natural way of being, then we have to make it safe for each other. Maybe it is the vulnerability of children that melts my heart. Perhaps human vulnerability is a trigger for gentleness. By sharing our vulnerabilities we may enhance our collective gentleness. One more surrender, one more learning.
Gwen Randall-Young is an author and award-winning Psychotherapist. For permission to reprint this article, or to obtain books or cds, visit www.gwen.ca