Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Found myself thinking today of the TV show St. Elsewhere, and in particular the ending, which showed an autistic boy staring into a snow globe. As the camera pans away we see the boy shake the small globe, and we are led to believe that the entire show took place inside this boy’s head, and all of the characters and stories were all part of his vast imagination that he was unable to communicate to the larger world.

I think about this sometimes during my work with kids, and in particular as it relates to the vastness of their imaginations. Over this past Christmas holiday I spent a lot of time watching Christmas movies with kids, and I was endlessly fascinated by the things they chose to focus on. Most of all they seem to be thinking about the ideas of magic and of possibilities. I learned a lot watching them, and really came away thinking about what happens to this sense of magic as we get older, and why we tend to shrink our sense of possibility with each passing year.

To return to the metaphor of the snow globe, it seems to me that there is something in every child’s mind that wants to create worlds and explore the idea of magic, exploration, and conquest. Yet somehow we as adults seem to find a way to bring them crashing back down to earth. They want our encouragement and we give them reality checks. They want to talk magic and we want to talk seat belts and homework.

And slowly as we get older we find that our worlds begin to shrink. Ask any child what they want to be when they grow up, and the answer is usually a movie star or a fighter pilot or something else spectacular like that. No kid ever says I want to be a middle manager trapped inside a cubicle, or a billing specialist trapped in a file room. Yet years later we find those same kids who wished upon a star doing these very things. How does this happen? I suspect a lot of it has to do with the idea of encouragement, as without encouragement our sense of possibility starts to shrivel, and we begin to settle for lives we never thought could happen to someone like us. I suspect we all have felt like this at one time or another, and one lesson I’ve learned from both my own therapy as well as my life, that sometimes just a little bit of this encouragement has the potential to drastically alter the path someone is on.

Conversely, I also don’t believe that any parent wakes up in the morning and thinks about ways they can snuff out the dreams of a child. As kids, we have probably all heard the oft-repeated phrase, “just wait until you have children,” and I think most kids silently promise to themselves that they will never be like their parents when they get old. Yet somehow we arrive into adulthood with deeply entrenched ideas about parenting that we learned from our own parents, and we find ourselves on the other end of this paradigm, wanting to protect our children from the dangers of the world and sometimes making unpopular decisions as we do.

During the best of these moments we do give our children a sense of safety and protection, but we also need to give them room to dream. Much like the little boy looking into the snow globe, we all have vast worlds inside of our own minds, and what these minds are really capable of is often so much bigger than the things we end up settling for. Each of us, in every moment, is creating with our minds our own version of reality. It’s a mind-blowing idea when you really think about it. All of the things we’ve observed, learned, created, all combine together to influence the moment to moment decisions that create meaning and define the nature of our existence.

The beauty of this is that much like the child from St. Elsewhere, we can choose to shake up our own snow globes any time and create a new reality for ourselves. And this reality doesn’t even have to be in the form of physical changes, but instead the way we choose to think about the moment to moment choices as to how we are going to respond to the world.

An example of this was presented to me by a kid in therapy this week, who showed up rather unexpectedly with his mother without an appointment. I usually am well prepared for this particular kid, and have computers, ipods, and a lot of other materials on hand to try to get into his world a little bit and hopefully incorporate the occasional therapeutic lesson. When the kid saw that I was empty handed on this particular day, he began carefully stroking his imaginary 6-year old beard, and his mind went to work. Soon he was moving my very small office around, and with the stroke of his imagination, my desk had become a pirate ship, and the chairs turned upside done to make pillars to shoot our cannons from. And for just a few fleeting moments, I could see his vision perfectly. We had entered a state of pure play, and by entering into his world for just a moment, I was able to start looking at my own in a little different way. It was a great lesson.

And so it goes that I sometimes have to remember to construct my own little pirate ships in my mind as I cycle back into a life full of little complaints and grievances. These are traps of the mind that continually shrink our worlds, and yet we knowingly walk the same plank day after day after day. In these moments I try to remember to shake it up a little, and summon the powers of my own imagination to look at the world a little differently than I had before. Sometimes it can be the littlest things, like talking to someone I normally wouldn’t or walking home a little differently than I usually do, and in these moments I’m always amazed at how much things start to look a little differently than they did before. The lesson is one of many I've absorbed from watching kids at play, and I am always grateful to borrow a little of their sense of magic.