Sunday Sermon: Fixing the wrong problem

matthew's picture

The sound of crying echoed down the hall, jolting my ears with the harsh harmonics natural to the vocal folds of your average one-year-old human child. For a few scant moments, in half-awake state, I reflected on how interesting it was that Nature has provided us with such a stimulus-response pattern, engendered in our forbears and, with rare exception, honored by parents, to force action to the distress of an infant. Equally remarkable are the changes to the tonality of their cries, such that even by the age of three years, their tone is not so tuned as to arouse paternal responses in strangers, but instead engender annoyance.

All these thoughts flashed through my head in the split-second before the next eardrum-throbbing shriek filtered into my half-awake consciousness. I could hear the blood rushing into my ears to compensate to repair the damage from the influx of sound with each subsequent scream. And yet, I remained, lethargic and unmoving. I briefly contemplated the conflicting desires inside my head: the one to honestly help my 18-month-old son, the second to remain sleeping in bed, the third, that little mean voice in the back of my head, to "just shut that kid up".

Voice number two prevailed. I lay in bed, breathing shallowly, secretly hoping my spouse would arise to assist the boy.

No such luck.

I felt a hand rest gently on the outside of my right thigh. "Matthew, would you get him please?" my wife asked softly as the moonlight filtered in horizontal bands through the vinyl blinds of our bedroom window. I responded by arising and stumbling my way down to Elijah's bedroom.

Upon my arrival in the room, the cries subsided to sniffling sobs. I picked up our youngster and held him for many long minutes. Within ten minutes, he calmed down, his head dropped to my shoulder, and soon thereafter I could hear the soft sounds of his regular breathing. I carefully laid him back down in his crib, covered him with a comforter, and returned to my bed.

My clock read 11:49.

I had just fallen into another dream, this one about a robot politician named "Fuzzy Logic" who was campaigning for the position of dog catcher for Tooele County, when those obnoxious sounds began percolating again into my subconscious.

"Mah!" (throb) "Mah!" (throb) "Mah-hah-hah-hah-waaaaaAAAAAAHHHHHHH!!". Blood sounded as if it were being poured by the gallons through the capillaries in my eardrum at this point, a virtual Niagara Falls of whooshing sound in response to each cry.

This time, rather than silently losing to the "rule of the first one to ask", I was proactive. (In case you're unfamiliar with that rule, it is a marital convention for many couples, including mine, that if both you and your spouse want something done, the first to be asked to do it is the one who does it. Which often leads to races to be the first to ask the other to do some unpleasant task.) "Honey," I began, and felt her body stiffen as leaned my hand on her back, "would you please get him this time?" Christy stood up. A few moments later, Elijah's room-mate and older brother Zach sleepily grumbled into the bedroom, blankets and pillow wrapped around himself, and flopped onto our bedroom floor, snoring within moments. I could hear Christy gently consoling Elijah in the boys' bedroom, speaking softly in his ear to calm him down. I could imagine her holding him, balanced against her several-months-pregnant belly, stroking his back and providing reassuring pats. Eventually, I could tell that she, too, was hearing the soft sounds of regular breathing from him, indicating that he was asleep, and she laid him down, then returned to our bed.

A few minutes later, nerve-wracking cries again echoed down the hall. Christy arose without prompting, less patient this time. She now spoke sternly to Elijah, informing him that this is sleeping time, not play time, and that he must sleep! She returned to bed, obviously agitated at the disturbance. I was equally upset at having my rest interrupted. "Sweetheart, would you like me to get you some earplugs so you can rest?" I asked.

"Sure, do you have some handy?" she responded.

"Yes, they are just downstairs in my backpack," I said. "I'm wide-awake right now, though, anyway."

"Then why don't you take him downstairs to snuggle and calm him down?" she suggested.

"OK," I replied. I arose in my pajamas (even in mid-September, Utah nights get quite cold), blearily felt my way past the inert body of my oldest son on our floor, tried to avoid stubbing my toe on the toys scattered in the hallway, and returned once more to Elijah's room. I picked him up, and it seemed as if he were ready to repeat the "calm me down, put me down" drill. This time, though, I finally decided to do things differently.

I carried my boy down to the family room, where we keep the diaper-changing supplies. I changed his diaper and found that he'd had a "stealth poopie". This is poop that seems to have no odor, and if you are around for the emission, often also has no sound. The only reliable method of detection, short of changing a diaper, is to stick your finger in there and dig around. At least, that was my mother-in-law's advice to me as a newlywed :)

Anyway, after a speedy change, I put him back to bed. I paused at my bedroom to deliver the earplugs to my still-awake spouse. This time, a bit wiser, I didn't even attempt to return to my own bed. Sure enough, within moments Elijah was screaming, so I yet again picked him up and carried him back downstairs. I sat him in his chair in the kitchen and buckled him in.

A wide grin split his chubby face into a caricature of himself, as if to say "duh, Dad, you finally got it, and it only took you TWO HOURS!"

I heated up a frozen pancake dog (just like a corn dog, but it's a sausage wrapped in pancake batter, rather than a hot dog wrapped in cornbread batter) in the microwave and handed it to him. He gratefully wolfed down half of it, then gave me a very meaningful look, one eyebrow raised, as he offered the remaining half of the pancake dog to me. I grabbed a small plastic bag and opened it. He dropped it in, and I wrapped the food up and put it into the refrigerator. Then Elijah raised his arms in the "all done" signal (we have a few sign language signals for various things, since he can't speak yet -- bizarre that, if the boy was hungry, he didn't give me the "food" sign), I picked him up, wrapped him in a blanket, and returned him to bed. He snuggled his head in next to his special Build-A-Bear teddy bear, giving me a small smile. I softly closed the bedroom door behind me as I crept downstairs to my computer.

Finding myself still wide-awake, I flipped on the computer to write up my reflections on this midnight episode. All told, the situation wasn't wrapped up until nearly 1:45 in the morning. It took us more than two hours to figure out what the child wanted, and once his needs were satisfied, he gratefully returned to our preferred late-night behavior of sleep rather than wailing.

This leads me to a question:

How often do we, misunderstanding the nature of a problem, repeatedly try to pursue avenues of treatment that aren't working?

Too many times, I think humanity is simply fixing the wrong problem. We attempt to offer consolation and comfort an infant who is simply screaming because he's hungry. Yet, for a while, the solution appears to work, until the next episode draws us from our comfortable slumber and into the pain of another human being.

I'll leave it to you to draw the parallels in your own life. I'm reminded of the old definition for insanity: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result". Tonight's episodes were certainly an "eye-opener" for me!

Dang, this blog took an hour to write. It's 3:43 in the morning. Back to bed for me. For sure, keeping up with this online journal is an effective treatment for the mental barricades I've built over the last decade.