Saturday, December 10, 2016

In the life of a child: Shocked by shame

This past week I had the privilege of facilitating a role-play workshop called "Life in Limbo"; an excellent tool that we have used to train up over 300 people in Guatemala over the past 12 months. This was my 10th time facilitating, and each time I learn so much about human nature, specifically about human emotion. I have seen grown men and women throw themselves on the floor, hide under tables, weep inconsolably, run out of the room and burst into uncontrollable laughter. Yesterday I had 30 psychologists and social workers who work in children's courts throughout Guatemala and gained even more insight into the complexity of human response to uncomfortable or stressful situations. A particular social worker assumed the role of a 4 year-old child and while she intended to respond as such, the behaviour of this woman was unlike anything I have ever seen even in the most hyperactive and defiant child. As I tried to instruct and lead her through the steps of the activity she burst out in laughter, disrupting the entire group while drawing all of the attention to herself. My shame antennae shot up and I was unsure how to handle her. We are taught simple techniques to manage this kind of behaviour, but this woman's outcry was unlike anything I had ever seen. At one point, while she was blindfolded and I could not get her to stop yelling, her supervisor had to come in and assist me to calm her down and get her to comply to my instructions. She confusedly ripped her blindfold off and dashed for the front doors.

What was she thinking? How could this social worker be so confused by her own emotions 10 minutes into acting as a child? Of course, I wanted to slap her, make intimidating eye contact and say something along the lines of "who do you think you are?" Her shame response ignited an intense shame response of my own. Her inability to save face and control herself provoked me. There was something about her deep emotional experience that made me so uncomfortable that as I reached into my personal repertoire of emotional responses I wasn't quite sure which one to use. As I reflect upon this experience, I am confronted with the fact that a grown, professional woman was so undone by 10 minutes of simulating a traumatic experience that our kids live daily. For our kids they aren't exercises; there is no underlying educational strategy of empathy development or resilience training. It is real life for them. And they have no idea how to respond. They wish they could strip off their blindfold and run out of the room, yet they are condemned to paralyzing uncertainty and unpredictable emotional outbursts. 

After a 10 minute break, the social worker was able to gain some composure, reintegrate into the activity and even ended up commenting that it was a truly "impacting" experience to have simulated being separated from her biological mother. Impacting alright. This experience has led me to 2 sobering conclusions. The first is that children being stripped from their parents is probably the hardest thing on earth. Even in death, there is closure and finality, but in this horrendous child protective dance, our kids literally live in limbo. The second conclusion is that emotional responses in others will always provoke emotions in ourselves. Sometimes we can pretend we are too mature and have it all together, but hiding those emotions is like allowing water to pool behind a wall that will eventually crack and come crumbling down. True emotional maturity isn't so much about not being affected by others' emotions, but being aware of how they affect us. It's about learning to effectively deal with our emotional responses in an appropriate fashion. Our closest encounters with raw emotions should affect us. We should weep at Lazarus' tomb even though we know that new life and revival is literally moments away. I don't want to be scared of those emotions because frankly, our kids don't have a choice. I have a choice to be an adult that is truly present, available and full of hope that life is moments away. Someone that is not necessarily unmoved, but can respond in love and be present when the reflex is to run and hide. Looking at this wholeheartedness, Jesus is truly the best example we have. He is sensitive, strong, available. He is humble and powerful. He is present. He was aware of Himself and available for others. Our kids need Jesus. Our kids need us to be like Jesus. For this is the only hope they may have.