Some time ago I met a young boy who was very angry. He sat among the other children in the activity room at the tumor hospital, but unlike the other kids he wasn’t playing. He brushed aside any attempts to interest him in toys or involve him in games, and loudly let it be known that the whole session was “stupid”.
When it came time for a story, he huffed, snorted, and rolled his eyes, and made loud sarcastic comments throughout the entire telling of it. I’ve seen this before, and it can actually be a good sign when kids are angry about their situation. They may not have learned to focus their pent -up rage on fighting their disease yet, choosing instead to do combat with the very people who are trying to help them, but at least they’ve still got some fight left in them, and that’s a good thing.
I told him, “I can see you have some pretty strong feelings right now. You don’t like this.” He gave me a look that can only be interpreted as “duh” and stomped out of the room, his clattering I.V. stand trailing behind him.
At our next session I decided to do an activity with the kids called, “What Animal Do You Feel Like?” “Sometimes we feel like a bear, and just want to curl up alone in a cave and sleep. Other times we feel like a cat, and want some affection to make us purr. Some days we feel like a butterfly, really wanting to spread our wings and leave everything that’s bothering us behind. And then sometimes, we feel like a lion. When things make us really angry and upset, we want to roar, and ….”
“And bite people! Eat them!” he shouted.
“Yes, for sure lions feel just like that sometimes” I acknowledged. We then colored an animal emotion worksheet that the kids can use to point out to their parents how they’re feeling each day. At the end of the session I asked him what he thought about our time together. “It was stupid,” he muttered. Then as a grudging after-thought he added, “But I liked the lion.”
I didn’t see my angry friend again the following week for he was too exhausted from his treatment to attend. But the following Wednesday he showed up, quieter and subdued, almost listless. That isn’t a good sign. He barely acknowledged my presence, was too tired to pick up the crayons to color. When I asked him what animal he felt like today, he grunted, stared off into space and told me, “I hate animals.”
The next week I told the kids a story about a caterpillar happily crawling along minding his own business, enjoying his life and eating leaves, when something strange happened. The caterpillar felt overwhelmingly tired and had to sew himself up in a dark, tight chrysalis. He stayed sleeping in that lonely place for a very long time. But when he finally awoke, he felt different somehow, changed. He saw an opening at the top of the chrysalis where light was coming through, but the hole was very tiny and narrow. He wondered how he could possibly make it through such a tight space, but he decided to try. He pushed and struggled with all his might to make it through that small hole.
The little caterpillar didn’t realize it, but he had grown wings. All the pushing and squeezing caused those wings to get strong, expand and grow. When he finally crawled into the light and spread his wings in the sun, he was surprised at just how amazing he now was. He was someone who could do hard things, extremely difficult things. Those difficult things had given him the power to fly.
I explained that some things make us scared or sad or angry, like being stuck in the hospital or taking medicine that we hate, being away from the people and places we love, but, like the butterfly, those things change us. They help us become strong and find our wings.
The boy listened quietly. I couldn’t tell exactly what he was thinking, but there was no eye-rolling or flippant comments this time. Afterwards, when we were working on a butterfly craft, I was looking over his shoulder when he turned to me and said shyly, “I really liked that story.” Then, as an afterthought, he added, “But I still really like lions too.”
What animal do I feel like? Often I feel like a lion; I want to roar at the pain and suffering I see in this world, the unfathomable injustice of it all, and my powerlessness to control any of it. Other days I feel like a fish; I want to hide in the deep places of my soul, away from life itself, and contemplate the events I’ve been through. But today? I think I feel like a butterfly. I may not understand it all, but I know somehow it will make me stronger. I will find my wings and fly.