There’s nothing like interacting with a small child to gain incredible insight to the innerworkings of the human brain. One such insight I’ve received recently is the concept of “reality”. As in, what is real and what is not real. If you’d asked me a month ago to define what’s real and not real, I would have had a pretty confident response. Now, I’m not so sure.
My granddaughter Clara is almost two years old. 22.5 months for those of you who prefer. She’s at that age where you have to be careful what you say because she will repeat it. Ask me how I know. She’s also at that age of wonder where she’s learning new concepts faster than I can keep up and her curiosity is off the charts.
It’s also Halloween season and that means decorations have adorned nearly every public and/or private space in Central Florida since the day after Labor Day. Some are fun and whimsical like Mickey with a witch’s hat or one of the Minions in the shape of a pumpkin. Others are a little more macabre such as skeletons and creepy crawlies and makeshift graveyards.
Clara is fascinated with all of it, but her particular fascination involves a 7-foot tall animatronic werewolf in a neighbor’s yard. To be honest, I find it a little unnerving even as an adult, so I can see why it would be scary to a toddler. Its eyes light up, its torso moves menacingly, and its jaws randomly gape open revealing rows of sharp teeth and emitting a spine-tingling howl.
Real or Portend?
This experience offered the perfect opportunity for Daddy to introduce Clara to the concepts of real and not real.
D: “The wolf looks and sounds scary, but it can’t hurt us because it’s not real. It’s fake. It’s pretend”.
C: “Wolfie portend?”
D: “That’s right. This wolfie is pretend. It’s not real.”
Clara seemed a little distrustful of this explanation, especially with the specter of the 7-foot werewolf’s glowing eyes still in sight, but she seemed to accept it. Now she’s on a mission to classify everything she sees to make sure she understands if it’s real or “portend”. Very important work, given this shocking paradigm shift.
It’s adorable for sure and seems like something relegated to the lives of small children and their caretakers. But then again, maybe not. How many times in your day-to-day life does your adult brain contend with separating what you are experiencing as real or fake? Is that what your friend’s skin really looks like in the selfie she posted or is she using a filter? Am I reading a real news headline or does it lead to an article from a satirical website? Is this person legit or are they trying to scam me? Is this offer too good to be true? The list goes on and on.
Really Good or Really Bad?
The interesting thing is that real isn’t inherently good and fake isn’t inherently bad. And therein lies another layer of analysis for our brain to tackle. Understanding that encountering a fake werewolf poses little to no danger to you (unless it fell over) but encountering a real wolf could pose LOTS of danger is an important distinction. Similarly understanding the difference between a practice EpiPen and one that actually functions and will inject your body with lifesaving epinephrine could mean the difference between life and death from anaphylaxis.
Understanding the difference between real and fake can help keep us alive because it enables us to take the correct action. If I walk around the corner in my neighborhood and see a 7-foot tall wolfman, it might be startling at first. Danger! But as soon as I realized it was fake, I would relax. Crisis averted. What was the difference there? For me, it was the way I felt. When I felt fear, I was prepared to go into fight, flight or freeze mode. When I realized there was no danger, I felt relief, was able to relax and probably laugh at the situation.
But what if we get stuck in fear and uncertainty because we are focusing on areas where action is not needed or possible? Things that are outside of our control? Many people in todays’ society are living in a place of constant fear because they just aren’t sure what’s real and what’s fake. Our media and political landscapes have fueled this state. They are designed to keep people hooked, uncertain and coming back again and again for more information and reassurance.
It can be incredibly easy to become disillusioned and cynical by spending a lot of time trying to comfort and protect ourselves from the potential dangers of misreading what’s real and what’s not in this world. And to what end?
If you find yourself living in a state of confusion, uncertainty or fear, ask yourself these questions:
· Am I safe right now?
· Will I change anything in this situation by worrying?
· What is within my control in this situation?
· What is one small step I can take (or not take) to feel better?
Our minds are absolutely incredible systems designed to keep us safe and alive. They enable us to instinctively take action to avoid discomfort, danger and death. But those same systems unchecked, can become a source of anxiety and torment.
To me, one of the most beautiful things about young children learning new concepts is how they just accept new information without judgment and test it out for themselves. They approach their worlds with curiosity and attach little judgment to what they learn. They just soak in what they need and let the rest flow away. Knowing or not knowing what is real or not real does not cause them much suffering or distress.
How freeing could it be to approach the world with that same sense of openness, wonder, curiosity and detachment? It might feel unnatural at first, especially to us old cynics, but just give it a shot. And if you can’t do it for real, you can always “portend”.
Betsy is a certified life coach and blogger who helps midlife women find satisfaction where they are now and inspiration to go after their big goals.
To learn more about working with Betsy, click here.