A long time ago, I came home from work one day and found my five-year old son carefully studying a pile of metal debris he must have just lugged into our yard from a neighboring hillside lot. We lived on the edge of a small city in the foothills, and there was frequent illegal dumping of trash by the side of the dirt road near our house. I was prone to a lot of anger at that time and was in the midst of what Terrence Real calls covert depression. I was deep in denial and furious at any suggestion that I had a problem – but the poison inside was constantly bursting out in rage. My first reaction was to get upset at his messing about with all that dangerously twisted metal refuse. All I could see were old sections of pipe, broken gear-like mechanisms, bent sheet-metal, jagged edges everywhere. I forced back the urge to scold and pull his hands out of that threatening heap. Instead, I asked him as pleasantly as I could, “So, B, what’s all that junk you’ve got there?”
Without looking up at me, he winced and said, almost wearily, making yet another try to get his lost-cause father to understand his imaginings. “Dad, it’s not junk – it’s treasure.”
“Oh…right…treasure,” I said slowly as I looked more carefully. And then I could see what he was seeing. This was not random trash dumped by the road. He had assembled each object carefully, the better to appreciate its uniqueness. There was a tri-jointed section of pipe with each right angle turned in a different direction, like part of a jungle-gym. There was a remnant of an old hand pumping mechanism from an ancient well, meshed gears attached to a broken rod that probably came from an old piece of farm equipment, a foot-wide wheel attached to a valve for opening and shutting what? – perhaps an irrigation ditch. Those were treasures, rusty and cracked to be sure from years of abandonment in a field, still caked with dirt, but antique pieces of machinery that couldn’t fail to capture B’s imagination. He must have spent hours digging them out of the ground. I sat down with him to examine everything more closely. He carefully explained the dazzling machine construction he wanted to build with them.
It was so clear to me then that I could only see ugliness and danger in everything around me. I was full of impatience, anger, intolerance. I threw those feelings at my family like evil gifts, demanding that they act in certain ways or keep an arbitrary order around the house. That idea of order, of course, could change from day to day. But seeing anything or anyone, especially our three young boys, on the loose, free of that control I wanted to impose, could trigger shouting and raging in outburst after outburst. But then, like Hyde to this Jekyll, I could have days of calm and enjoy the play of my kids and the creative magic that my wife brought to us all. They could never be sure which me they would encounter.
At least when B described what he was doing that day, I wasn’t completely lost in a state at once furious and depressed. I could listen in that moment and see what he saw. I was relieved and happy to sit on the ground beside him to learn what he would make of each treasure he had discovered.
Here was a way of reconnecting to life and stepping free of depression, however briefly. If I could just think: How else can I see what I’m looking at – here is the disorder but there is the beauty and harmony. It doesn’t have to look ugly, and I don’t have to see myself as a piece of junk to be thrown away. I can remind myself to fight that way thinking by asking a simple question: How would five-year B look at this? What possibilities would he see?