Arrows and emotions

Photo of arrows by Alan Lam
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At 1.45 this morning, our four year-old son came into our bedroom, announced that he didn’t feel very well, and then promptly vomited everywhere. It was pretty awful, for a whole bunch of reasons.

The emotional response to situations like this is always interesting, because it’s likely that you’ll feel a whole lot of emotions so close together that it will feel simultaneous.

When Cass started to throw-up, I was immediately concerned for his well being, but that feeling was also quickly joined by:

  • surprise at the sheer volume of food that was coming up
  • fear that I was glimpsing at my own future (we’d eaten the same dinner)
  • panic at the prospect of losing precious sleep
  • disappointment at the prospect of spending the next hour, on my hands and knees, scrubbing the carpet.

We took him to the bathroom, sat with him until the vomiting settled down and then split into two teams: my wife focussed on cleaning Cass up and making him comfortable while I concentrated on dealing with the mess.

As a I was scrubbing I started to feel guilty about the fact that I was more concerned with having to spend the next hour scrubbing, and that my concern for Cass’ welfare was sitting towards the back of the queue.

What a weird thing to happen: feeling guilty about how I’m feeling about something else. But this happens all the time. Something bad happens and we’re not only struck by what’s happened, but also disappointed by our own response.

There are two things which are probably worth noting here:
1) In the aftermath of an awful event you might have one over-riding feeling, but that’s usually the one that came last, or which for some reason was loudest. It isn’t right or wrong, it just is. All the other responses are still there, you’re probably just not paying attention to them. It’s like eating a three-court meal and only being able to taste the garlic from the starter an hour later. It doesn’t mean that you didn’t eat dessert, or that it wasn’t nice – just that the starter was full of garlic.

2) In Buddhism there’s a concept of two arrows. These arrows can strike us when something bad happens and both are painful. The first arrow is the impact of the event itself but the second arrow (which can be just as painful) we fire ourself. It’s the result of our unhelpful reaction to a situation – usually guilt towards how we feel or act and it ties neatly into the saying “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional”.

When we responding to an event and there’s an overwhelming emotion, it’s worth taking a moment and making room for the other feelings which are there. Chances are, there was an emotional collision at the point of impact with whatever happened and there are lots of thoughts and feelings lying about if you take a moment to look. And, even if the the loudest emotional response isn’t the most noble one, you still don’t have to shoot yourself with that second arrow. What you feel isn’t as important as what you do about it.

Cass was fine after about 5 minutes, but the carpet didn’t fare so well. It’s seen worse in there last 5 years, something else which I could could feel guilty about, but this morning, that arrow can stay in the quiver.

Wearing White

Today I’m covered in vomit and I don’t care. If I changed my clothes every time my daughter Florence spewed on me, I wouldn’t have time to leave the house; but this afternoon I took it too far towards the other end of the spectrum which was probably even worse.

While down at the green grocer, the man behind the counter pointed to my jumper and said, “I think that you have something on your top.” I didn’t really have the energy or inclination to lie about what it was, so I just told him “oh, that’s just vomit,” and when the look on his face changed from concern to horror I tried to allay his fears by following it up with, “but don’t worry, it’s not mine.”

To a stranger, the only thing more alarming than being blasé about being covered in your own vomit, is being blasé about being covered in someone else’s.

The problem was, whenever I heard someone say, “you’ve got vomit on yourself,” I assumed that they were doing it out of a concern for my appearance and the welfare of my clothing. The real reason that people will tell you about vomit on your clothing however, is to measure your mental stability by gauging your reaction to news of the spew. If you have a normal reaction to news of the vomit, “oh God, really? Do you have a cloth?” then people can rest easy that you’re ok and that the vomit/porridge/tipex/semen down your top is the result of an accident that probably wasn’t you’re fault.

If however, you react with, “don’t worry, it’s not my vomit,” you present yourself as an absolute fuck-trophy, seemingly incapable of recognising or acknowledging the social damage that can occur when you’ve got a suspicious white stain on your top.

I mean, what kind of toolbox gets vomited on by someone and doesn’t think or care to clean it off? As it happens, this kind of toolbox.

To be fair, baby vomit isn’t as bad as adult vomit: It’s watery, it doesn’t smell of chartreuse & regret and until your baby is eating solids, it’s blissfully carrot-free. But despite this, telling someone that the vomit on your shirt is “only semi-curdled breast milk” doesn’t placate their concerns, it’s just a surefire way to make sure that you’re well on your way to earning a reputation on par with trough-man.

The up-side is that at least fatherhood has allowed me to break free from the shackles of caring what other people think. The down-side is that I’m no longer welcome at my local fruit shop.

Existential Vomit

I’m not sure if there’s something wrong with my daughter Florence, but every time she sees her own reflection, she vomits on herself. At first we thought it was just a coincidence. We’d held her in front of the mirror twice and both times she’d spewed cascades of semi-digested breast milk which would soak through whatever she was wearing and splatter artfully on the floor – disgusting, but hardly statistically valid.

Now while Normal-Kent was busy giggling and Pragmatic-Kent was wondering if a spewy mirror needs to be windexed, Science-Kent was considering the possibility of correlation and causation in the case of Florence vs Florence. Now, Science-Kent is generally not to be trusted. One only need review his past hits “Burning the Garage with Napalm” (1993) & “There’s No Way We Could Get Pregnant Doing it Like This” (2009) to know that he’s a reckless idiot with little regard for consequences (or the highly flammable nature of a gel-based flame fuel). But Science-Kent had his interest piqued and was going to test his mirror-vomit theories no matter how many times it meant cleaning the floor in the hallway.

At this stage, before any of you decide to call child services, I should probably mention that at no time in the following experiment did Florence become distressed. If anything she’s a cheerful vomiter who is just as happy throwing up as she is eating her own fist, playing with her toy rabbit or bending the laws of conservation of mass with the incredible volume of shit she produces.

So with the aim of determining if there was any relationship between the mirror and the throwing up, Science-Kent presented Florence to her reflection every day for a week to see what would happen. What happened, was that he spent a lot of time cleaning the floor. Not only did Florence spew on herself every time she looked in the mirror, but the time it took her to spew grew shorter and shorter with every session. By Sunday of “Science Week”, we only needed to walk past the mirror with Florence in our arms and she would spurt a torrent of hot surprise down the length of both of us. Despite our concerns, Florence seemed to think the whole thing was delightfully funny. She’d see her reflection, giggle, wave, fart and then blaarrgggghhhh before laughing to herself and then jamming her fist in her mouth – such a lady.

It didn’t really offer any clues as to why she spewed, but at least the laughing did rule out the possibility that the vomit was triggered by existential terror. I’d been concerned that when she saw herself in the mirror she realised the bare reality of existence which manifested itself as a warm stream of curdled horror – so the laughing was a load off my mind. Some parents worry about illness or strangers, I worry that my daughter will be petrified by the nature of her own existence.

One week in and still no closer to the truth, the experiment was called off after my fiancee Charly asked me why I was scrubbing the floor again. When I told her about my quest to learn the secret behind the mirror and spewing, she just looked at me with a mix of pity and despair “She gets excited when she sees her reflection and she vomits when she gets excited.” Smart arse.

There’s nothing quite like the humiliation of discovering, the hard way, something that was as obvious to everyone else as hot chunder on a freshly cleaned mirror. Of course, I didn’t feel bad, but Science-Kent is very proud and he moped around the house for weeks, not even motivated enough to watch old, clips of “The Curiosity Show” on you tube. Thankfully he recovered from his melancholy after hearing about what happened when Charly forgot about Florence’s affliction and took her into a changing room at The Gap.