Children spend a lot of time worrying: that there may be a monster under the bed, that a big cat may take them away in the night, that there is something frightening about darkness. Next morning, in the comfort of early hours of the day away from the terrors of their dreams, they tell us of having imagined being getting lost in an amusement park with so many unknown faces, of being chased down by dogs in underground car parks or of having had their legs dragged down by the monsters under the bed.
And of course, like always, to appease their worries, we take them in our arms and tell them that, thankfully, it will all be OK, that there is nothing to be concerned about, that they are safe and that the world will do them none of the harm they dread. Schools send out the same message, the doctors are equally reassuring and even the bedtime stories do their best to tie things up neatly.
We think, by the way of optimism, that we are making them strong, and preparing them for a sometimes very rough world. We are not always wrong but might there be occasional space for a rather darker but equally and sometimes more calming approach? Being scared for scaring children, might we be making them more afraid by shielding them from what is actually intimidating?
Because often in reality: there are famines and plagues, fires, and wars. There are some dangerous animals and some decent looking beastly people. There are horrific diseases and there is death.
Crucially, the Stoics insisted, though these things are possible, to a far greater extent than we’re inclined to think, they can be endured. We must not leave them as unexplored worries and shove them to the back of consciousness; that is to give them victory and allow them to unsettle us perpetually. Even our own death can be measured up to and the specter confronted. These all situations can be thought through and mastered by our minds. There aren’t always happy endings, it’s nothing like what children’s stories imply, but maybe there can be a way nevertheless if we look at what our options are in the midst of calamity.
To find calm, imagine not what will probably happen, but what can happen.Seneca, Philosopher
The Stoics advised running through the most awful scenarios, grave disgrace, total poverty, the loss of a limb or two, and try to analyze these terrors head-on. The route to inner strength isn’t to run away from anxiety, it is to switch on the light in the room of fear and see what is really there. If there were a flood, how could we cope? Say there was a plague, how might we manage? If we got a diagnosis, what might we do next? That is resilient thinking, not the response that tells us that we are being silly and that it will be entirely alright – until it isn’t and then we are lost.
The most Stoic story in the history of children’s literature was written and illustrated by the German-born British writer Judith Kerr and first published in 1968.
‘The Tiger who came to Tea‘ tells the story of a little girl called Sophie who is having tea with her mother when there is a ring at the door. It is – as it can sometimes be in life – a tiger. A natural response would be to panic. It might be normal to scream. It would be extremely understandable if one lost all will to live. But Sophie’s mother appears to have read Seneca and perhaps Marcus Aurelius too and takes the new visitor in her stride. It’s not an ideal outcome of course, but it’s not grounds for complete consternation either.
Stuff happens – and the mother might have expected something like this. So she sets about trying to appease the tiger’s hunger. She gives him all the food they have. He ransacks the cupboards, he swallows everything around, he bashes the kitchen about. He even empties the taps of their last drops of water. And then, though it’s been a bit bad, he goes away. When Sophie’s father comes home from work, he’s rather dismayed that there’s no food left. The parents decide this might be a great occasion to go out for a meal, and so they head off and have something delicious in a nearby cafe. The next day, Sophie and her mother restock the house. They find a big tin of tiger food – and buy it ‘just in case.’
But in fact, the tiger doesn’t return. It may have been terrifying, but it was a one-off visit. Life goes on. Tigers come for tea – and then they go away every time.
Considering ‘The Tiger who came to Tea’ like premeditation, we explore a difficult scenario that is designed to show us that such things can happen but that it can also be borne. We do our children an injustice when we guess that they can only bear happiness. They – like all humans – are wired for catastrophe.
The most loving and realistic thing is not to pretend that fearsome events don’t befall us; they may and they can fairly destroy what we value along the way.
The key move when we are scared is to stay with our fears long enough to probe what the dreadful things can really do to us. Analyze matters to the point where we can perceive that we could endure what appeared merely catastrophic from afar. It’s to know that tigers will come – and after some trouble and considerable damage, they might even go away again.