A Strong Man lives in our house — the kind from the circus. He arrived 6 months ago — a few weeks before our daughter experienced her first fire drill.
It was routine, as fire drills go. Except that for her, it wasn’t routine. Two years olds have a sense of wonder about the world that is matched only by their need to control it. Coming without warning, the fire drill disrupted something in our daughter’s internal reality. Over and over, she told us about the “scary bells.” Then her fears grew more universal. She began to fear the doorbells, clocks, and smoke detectors in our apartment. Her sleep became disturbed.
At first we thought that she was afraid of being surprised again. We suggested sounding off the smoke alarms ourselves. That only terrified her more. We started to wonder if perhaps what she really feared was something more existential — that we have these loud bells because bad things do happen.
I turned to experts. We assured her that her fears were normal. We recounted our own childhood fears, like squirrels, and the lines In the swimming pool. My husband slept on her floor. We carried her through the hallways. As weeks passed, though, none of our efforts worked and I began to worry that the episode had left her with a profound, premature existential angst.
Luckily, that’s when Strong Man showed up. Initially, I just put his picture up on her door, one she painted after she admired him on a video. I told her that he might help keep the bells in the hallway from ringing.
I didn’t expect that she’d internalize him, of course. But for the better part of every day now, my daughter IS Strong Man. She embodies him. Possessed by him is sometimes how it looks, as she answers questions directed to her in the third person, rattling off details of what Strong Man does or thinks, and waving her hands as she bounces buoyantly around the room. Strong Man has a friend named Verde, who sometimes comes to play. Strong Man has to go to work. Strong Man has to exercise, take a nap, or go to the doctor to get a shot. Recently Strong Man had to go to the hospital, to have a baby. Strong Man has a rich life.
Most important, Strong Man isn’t afraid of bells. I believe in her Strong Man. Which is to say, I believe all of us, young and old, need to have stories that work to heal us when life gets hard, or confusing, or scary. Some stories we tell ourselves, some are passed down in family lore, some we go to hear every Sunday. Our family does go to church – we are reminded there that we can pray to God to protect us from all anxiety. But our relationship with God is not so personal – I suppose our faith is not so strong —that we could tell our children with conviction that prayer will bring relief. To me, that is a powerful story, for someone else.
So for now, for my daughter, and for all of us — Strong Man is our story. He works for her. I’m happy to have him around.
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