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  • Scott Bowman

Tantrum... then and now

Year's ago I was on a ferry about to head home across Puget sound after work (among the more awesome commutes in the world) and I was sitting at a table across from a bunch of video games thronged with young kids.

The passengers were still coming on and a woman walked by with her child of about 6 totteling along behind her. His eyes went wide with desire when he saw one of the arcade games.

Then he saw the crowd of kids around it, and the quarters lined up on it and his little brow wrinkled as he worked out the unwelcome reality "I am not going to get to play this video game."

When the understanding came to him fully, he stopped in the aisle, pointed at the game, sent all the blood in his body to his face and said: "BWAAHAAHHHHH!!!!!"

I thought to myself, 'there, but for a better vocabulary, go I."

"Bwaaaahhhhaahh" roughly translates into "What is, right now, should not be (...and I feel strongly about this)."

It is the essence of all negativity and it is a ballsy move. It takes on not just the status quo, and Authority, but the Universe and Reality itself - "What IS, is wrong, and should stop this instant."

It is a gutsy thing to oppose reality this way, as reality usually wins. OK, reality always wins. No amount of negativity piled on to a situation will change it, move it, or budge it in the least little bit. We can cry until we are blue, bloated and floating on a sea of rage and nothing will change because of it. I say this from a great deal of personal experience.

So why do we do it? Why do we create negativity?

Ekhart Tolle, I think in The Power of Now, said (and this is a loose quote here), if you don't like a situation you have three options: leave it, change It, or accept it completely. All else is madness.

It was the "All else is madness" part that really caught me. It's absolutely true. If you don't like a situation, to complain or do anything other than one of those three things is insane.

For my part I do a lot of this particular kind of insanity. Why?

I was thinking about this and it occurred to me that there are two possibilities; either we learn to do it, or we are born to do it. Either it's an adaptive thing that we figure out or it's an instinctual thing and driven by the same thing that draws a moth to fly to flame, or that makes animals sit on Capybaras (...animals like to sit on Capybaras - there's a website for it. Google it if you don't believe me!).

Both of those sound weird, don't they? I somehow just basically doubt that that kid was having an instinctual reaction to that Galaga game. I just don't think our ancestors faced that situation in a Darwinian-survival-of-the-fittest kind of moment, and then the guy who stopped, pointed and bawled was the sole survivor or won mating rights to the nearest female.

What then? It's adaptive? We learn to get mad at reality? What on earth for? What purpose does it serve? How does it make any sense to learn to do that?

It's a bit of both actually, instinct and learning, and it turns out to make a lot of sense. It's actually one of the very first things we learn. Before we can speak, or walk or even understand that we are a separate thing with a name and a purchasing profile on Amazon we learn this.

At that time, we are just a puddle of sensations and reactions, there is no self and the brain is assembling and growing and learning - this impulse moves the arm thing, blinking these makes bright then dark. But we do have one very important adaptive instinct - when we feel pain, discomfort or hunger we cry.

Imagine how it must occur on the inside, for an assembling self with no understanding that there is an inside or an outside, that there is anyplace where we stop and the world starts. There is a pang of nasty sensation, it hurts, it could be hunger or gas we have no idea, it's just pain. Then out of the mouth part a cry erupts, we hear it, we feel our effort making it. For a while there is only the pain and the crying. Then all of a sudden there is warmth, care, soft touch, something to suckle, the tender penetration and cooing of safety and love.

To someone sitting next to that at a bus stop it would look like a mother holding a baby, the baby cries out and the mom puts a bottle in its mouth and kisses it on the forehead.

To the baby it is the first magic.

Before we know words or wonder we learn that crying makes the pain go away. What an enchantment! While we are learning that we are something, not everything, separate, a self, a child, a boy, an individual, all the while underneath there is one comfort, a super power, a way to move the wild, confusing, world and be safe and secure again, learned in our distant, misty past - when we cry, eventually, the pain goes away.

Then it stops working all the time, or it takes longer. So we work at it a little harder. A behavioralist will tell you the most enduring and persistent behavior comes from a random schedule of reinforcement. Far from causing the association to stop, as the reward becomes more unreliable the persistence of the behavior increases. Think slot machines - if they just paid off and then just didn't, no one would play, but as they are, if you just keep putting quarters in, maybe next time...

So as we are forming our identity and our sense of self, we are hardening and persisting and strengthening this magic, this power and for years and years we add new pieces to the spell. Words! What a great addition. I can stamp my feet! I'll do that. I can throw things and hit? That's great! And the incantation grows and we never question where it came from, or that it was ever only intended for the one who was holding us.

We bring it to school and to our friends and finally in a lonely angry night, to ourselves.

It is the first magic we ever learn - we just don't make a point of unlearning it.

I don't even think we could unlearn it if we wanted to - it's that deep and formative. We believe, down underneath our ability to form words, that when we create negativity the world will change for us. Even after we intellectually come to understand how silly that is, way underneath, the animal still says different.

That is the tantrum then. The tantrum now?

What do you do with your tantrums and negativity? I get mad at myself for mine. That's right, I try to apply the same magic, I try to use negativity to make my negativity go away.

OK, it's not the best strategy. But I've got another that I actually like: I don't make myself wrong for it. I call on another part of me that knows that there is a child hurting and doesn't have a choice in it, that knows how to comfort it and hold it and love it. And I give that hurting part of me love. "yeah... you don't get to play the video game. It's going to be ok."

I can't cry my way to owning a new Maseratti (which, goddammit, I should have) but I can still cry and receive love and safety and warmth - if only from myself.

That was the original goal of the incantation anyway, and is a truer and deeper summoning and satisfaction of the need than playing the video game, or eating the cheesecake or owning the Maseratti ever could be. (...but I should still get to have the Maseratti). What's your favorite tantrum you've ever thrown?

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