Recently I had my first night working in the church nursery. Two two-year-olds were already bouncing from bookcase to ring toss when a third entered. She was a chubby cheeked girl named “Emily” and she was not happy with mom. Every time mom would make for the door Emily would start to cry. We all know that call; one part breathless wail of distress and two parts ultimate agony.
Mom eventually left and during this time another mom had handed me her six-month-old, Jackson.
As Emily wailed, Jackson began to cry. I tried walking him, shushing him, bouncing him, spinning with him but nothing worked. I suspected, partially because he kept looking in Emily’s direction, that he too felt the pain of Emily’s wail. My heart started to thump. I had no idea what the first two kids were doing BECAUSE THE SECOND TWO WERE FREAKING OUT! My wife looked at me and pleaded, “Can you go and get Emily’s mother? She not calming down.”
“Let me try.” I said.
“Okay. She’s not usually this difficult. In the past I just hold her and within a minute she’s calmed down.”
I went over to Emily and knelt down. Her hands were up and she was making a flicking motion at her hair. So I stroked the back of her head saying, “You miss your mommy. You’re sad. You miss your mommy so much. You’re so sad.” Emily almost immediately stopped crying and leaned her head forward so I could keep stroking. “And you have such soft hair. Can you feel how soft it is?” Emily started flexing her tiny fingers, “And you’ve got nice strong hands. Can you move your hands? And you’ve got a nice loud voice. Can I hear your voice?” At that point she’d completely calmed down, Jackson stopped crying and Emily started stroking her hair, feeling its softness.
After a few minutes we sat down on one of the stools and tossed a teddy bear back and forth, later we moved to stacking rings, then we closed by playing with a pink castle and a unicorn.
Now I used some therapeutic techniques. Pacing and leading. Empathic conjecture. An assumption that body image is self esteem. Picking up on minimal cues. But the organizing principle, the central idea is that she’s hurting because she feels alone.
Our ability to see others’ pain and aloneness is what a friend of mine calls living below the line because you have to look below the surface. Living below the line is hard. One of the biggest barriers to living below the line, to seeing what’s going on below the surface for others is when we haven’t had someone do this for us. If we haven’t had someone who sees below the line for us, sometimes we don’t know what’s going on inside of ourselves.
Another barrier to living below the line is how terrifying vulnerability can be. It’s easy for others to see our underlying pain and loneliness when we’re a little girl in distress, but when we’re a teenager smoking copious amounts of weed and actively failing out of high school or when we’re a husband who’s had an affair, people don’t look so graciously on us. They tend to get angry or shut us out. All they see is the behavior above the surface not the pain below the line. Someone has to be able to hear our pain and isolation without freaking out themselves. Instead, some of us harden our hearts and brainwash ourselves into thinking we weren’t meant for that sort of openness in a relationship.
The thing is if we don’t live below the line we die. If you’re a baby it’s called failure to thrive. If you’re older we don’t have a name for it, but you get sick more often, your immune system starts to glitch, and you get all sorts of diseases at higher rates. We’re built to live below the line.
If you have someone you can live below the line with, you can work through anything because you bond. Bonds are the linchpin. We know this innately. Bonding is why Harry is the Boy Who Lived (#MotherSonBonds). Bonding is how Vader remembers who he is and turns on the emperor thus bringing balance to the force (#FatherSonBonds). Bonding is why we send in eight men in to save Private Ryan (#BotherBonds #FamilyBonds). Bonding is why we cry when we realize Jack’s notebook is the story of their love (#MarriageBonds).
We’re built to live below the line. And yet some of us shouldn’t. If you haven’t yet found someone who’s safe, then don’t live below the line. Not everyone has earned the right to hear your story.