When I was young, tantrums—fits, really—sometimes possessed me. Some minor slight would set me off, and I’d rail in ire or angst or something between. I lost it so often my family nicknamed me “The angry bee” because I buzzed incomprehensibly and spun like someone signaling a path to poison flowers. I couldn’t have been easy to watch, so my parents sent me to my room. Their instructions were simple and direct: “Stay there until you can come out and be a civil human being.”
Once alone, I’d…
- rail against the injustice of my oppressors
- formulate elaborate plans to run away
- fantasize how much I’d be missed
- cry until crying grew tiresome
- relive and revise the moments that landed me there
- embrace whatever criticism I’d received
- crack the door to listen to my family without me
- catalog my other shortcomings and fatal flaws
- excoriate myself for the sins of my nature
- cogitate over what made me so unsuited to society
- resolve to become Spock and never feel emotion again
- compose the newest chapter of my prisoner’s autobiography
- prepare my apology and a sincere promise—this time—to change
- rehearse a jocular re-entry sparing my saying anything
- wait, hoping someone noticed and retrieved me
These episodes ended much less dramatically than they began. I slinked back into the TV room. One of my brothers or sisters scooted over to make room on the couch or in a chair. I slotted into the space, and no one said anything. The biggest kindness, they must have believed, was silence, forgetting, moving on.
I’d say the process didn’t help me much but really it made me. In many ways, I’m in that room still, a ruminating creature subject to the same looping reexaminations and recriminations, looking for a place when I’m never entirely sure I belong anywhere. Without my history of time alone, I might not pursue sense so desperately now. I might not read the way I read or write as I do.
Nonetheless, the infinite time out isn’t anything I’d recommend, and it wasn’t a course I could take with my own children. My wife’s request I let my son or daughter stew, to give them time to process, to calm down, to think twice about the things they’d said—such patience felt impossible to me. In their place, I’d await some angel’s arrival. I wanted to be the angel. My children weren’t always glad to see me, and sometimes they welcomed continuing our dispute just where we left off, but I couldn’t stay away, couldn’t leave them alone, couldn’t leave me alone, couldn’t leave questions alone.
My self-restraint never lasts long. Though I’ve learned to affect a preternatural calm, I’ve never actually had much. My mood changes more than weather, is more subject to subtle shifts in air pressure, cloud cover, temperature, and wind direction.
You can accept never settling some issues because variables are too multitudinous and circumstances too chaotic, but thinking every issue insolvable is a bad habit. And one hard to break. Disbelieving assures you’re right. Though self-recrimination is a tremendous ally to deliberation, a motivation to think over, under, and through complicated questions, a spur to exploring subtle distinctions, implications, and applications, though I wouldn’t be myself without this relentless sense I haven’t thought anything through yet, that room is lonely.
The greatest kindness may be someone who can stop spinning flywheels of thought and affirm what you might otherwise never believe. Some rooms you can’t escape without help.