Flexibility and Curiosity: Life Lessons from Children’s Literature

What I learned about flexibility and curiosity from the stories of my childhood.

Three books taught me the value of flexibility and curiosity long before I understood why they were important. I read James and the Giant Peach* by Roald Dahl, The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norton Juster, and The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles byJulieEdwards** so often in elementary school and beyond, that I still quote passages from them. I did so often enough that my own children probably thought they were my words, until I introduced them to the originals. 

I now see flexibility and curiosity as the two most vital lessons in my life and work. –

Life lessons from children's literature
What books stayed with you into your adulthood?

By their very nature they are also lessons that I have not finished learning. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but the young protagonists in these books all start out in various states of stuckness, of unhappiness with the way things are. They have reacted with despair, boredom, pride, or fright, and they are each convinced that how they see things is the only way. They are all on the cusp of becoming more true to themselves and more independent, but change is uncomfortable, and feels dangerous, even if it’s exactly what they want.

After the death of his parents and horrible treatment by his aunts, James embarks on a fantastic journey from rural England to New York City inside the pit of a giant peach. He rolls down a steep hill, bobs in a shark-infested ocean, and flies over the Atlantic in the company of equally giant insects who have a very hard time getting along. Milo begins what he thinks is an imaginary, and probably really stupid game in his city apartment, and ends up, hounded by the demons of Ignorance, rescuing the Princesses of Rhyme and Reason who have been imprisoned in a castle in the air. He is aided by Tock the Watchdog, who values time, and by an oddly appealing creature called the Humbug, who, despite some pretty bad character defects, manages to help anyway. Lindy and her brothers travel with a Nobel Prize winning scientist to another realm where all the creatures that human beings no longer believe in are hiding. Together they explore the country in search of the last Whangdoodle, hindered by hostile creatures who are determined to send them home.

Somehow, by the ends of their stories

Flexibility and Curiosity
There’s almost always another perspective…

James, Milo, and Lindy and her brothers have seen life from a broader perspective. They have been, for a while, embarrassed by their faulty assumptions or endangered by their own foolishness. They have been able to endure the discomfort of how things are, and have learned how to hope (and work for) something better. They’ve all walked the path between imagination and reality, and found that a healthy dose of one always enriches the other, and vice versa. They’ve learned to look closer, to be open to wonder, and to ask questions, lots of them, and not just the questions they are “supposed” to ask. They’ve all stood up to someone in authority, and seen that even someone who has good intentions can still be wrong. They’ve all learned to change their minds, to shift their position if it’s not working for them, and to accept that sometimes they are the well-intentioned person who needs to hear the difficult truth from someone with more wisdom.

My own story is not over yet, and I know I’m not done with these lessons.

I’m glad that I have such good, old friends to accompany me on the journey! I hope you have your own favourite stories that help you through the challenging times.

*The movie produced by Tim Burton just wasn’t the same, and was even more heavy-handed in my opinion.

**Yes, she’s the actress from Sound of Music that you know as Julie Andrews, married to Blake Edwards.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, misunderstood, or alone as you navigate a change or mourn a loss, I help people find their way through their unique grief. Please  contact me if you feel I might be of service.

 

The Fourth Piece of Art – Sharing Our Art Therapy

Not everyone who makes art in Art Therapy stops there,

with what they made in their session. Sometimes, even if we began a piece in the spirit of pure emotional expression, we feel an urge to bring it to some form of completion that we DO want to share with others. We might simply share what we’ve created during Art Therapy, as-is, or we may move from the immediate therapeutic expression to creating a fourth piece of art, where we begin again, with a plan and a direction in mind. This piece of art requires patience and the exercise of skillfulness. The intention in this piece of art is what we usually think of when we say “Art.” It’s a piece that is meant to be seen by others, and we allow it to be judged on qualities beyond its ability to mirror our feelings back to us. We expect it to communicate something to an audience beyond us, and perhaps to fit into certain parameters of skillfulness or quality of medium.

How we share our art says something about us

Whether we share it in its “first draft” form, which we may have created during an Art Therapy session or from a moment of inspiration, or whether we start over again with a plan, how we go about the process can tell us a lot about ourselves in other situations. If you’ve ever worked with me, you’ll know I always urge my clients to use caution when thinking about sharing anything they’ve made in Art Therapy with people who might not understand. The example I give (only somewhat jokingly) is of the risk of showing someone your deeply emotional piece, and having them say “what a pretty picture of a cat!” when to you it’s a gut-wrenching image of your relationship with your mother… Not a comfortable situation, I assure you! So, with due caution, let’s talk for a minute about what might be useful about sharing your art. 

Intention is important

What do I want, need, or expect from showing someone what I’ve made? Am I feeling solid in how I feel about this piece? Will someone else’s approval or disapproval create really big waves in my life, or just a ripple? I doubt anyone is capable of having no reaction whatsoever to other people’s opinion, but to become aware of how much impact it has on you is a great exercise in boundaries. The bottom line is that we don’t have any control over how someone else feels, and to fight this reality is to lose every time. It can be helpful when sharing your art to hold an intention to be compassionately aware of what happens within you. Am I tempted to change or explain away any aspect of my creation? Can I hear what the other person says about it in a spirit of curiosity?

Certainly, if one of your aims in showing your art is to work on aspects of skilfulness, then learning to hear helpful technical critique while maintaining your own unique style will be a major task. In fact, it’s probably an artistic skill just as much as how to hold a brush. If your aim is not technical but is to share from your heart with someone who is important to you, then it can be helpful to let them know that from the start. So often we expect our friends and families to know what we are feeling or wanting, but that is often unfair and unrealistic. How much kinder it can be, instead, to let them know. It is o.k. to only want them to see it and to hear you explain what it means to you. You’re allowed to be interested in hearing how it makes them feel (if you are) or that you’d just like them to ask you questions about it. It is even allowed to ask them specifically not to tell you whether they “like” it or not! What might it be like to do that? What might it be like for you not to know what their opinion was, but just to know that they were willing to be with you in your vulnerability of sharing? What would it be like to ask for their honest opinion, and to hold on to your own even if they differ?  I don’t ask these questions with any sense of knowing what the “right” answer is, by the way! I think it’s probably different for everyone. But I do believe that being willing to ask ourselves these questions is a courageous way to get to know ourselves (and other human beings!) on a deeper level.

And of course, the more we sit with the questions, the more we are working on that wondrous “third” piece of art, always in the making – ourselves!