Friday, May 28, 2010


I love a good tantrum. There are few things I find so adorable or intriguing than a two-year-old child standing in a line somewhere, at a grocery store or a bank, flying into a screaming, quivering mess of rage. This scene rates up there with a robin lovingly placing a twig into a nest or a spider methodically immobilizing a fruit-fly or a seven-pound Chihuahua trying to pick a fight with an indifferent golden retriever.

It’s one of those moments when we witness nature in all of its beautiful, brutal illogic, and we can really enjoy it because we are only, in this moment, spectators, no more responsible for quieting this unknown child than we are for rescuing a fly from a spider.

Childless people aren’t supposed to think that tantrums are cute. I’ve seen my friends bristle. Can’t they control their child, they sneer? I’d be happy to discipline your son for you, ma’am.

I think I might feel similar annoyance if it were my child, or some child I was responsible for, who was disturbing everyone’s tranquil day at the bank. But if it’s not my job to make the child be quiet, I can really enjoy the beauty of the tantrum, a display of unchecked emotion the likes of which adults pay good money to see in melodramatic tearjerker films and action movies, because we so rarely get to see such a thing in our normal adult lives, and when we do it’s usually not pleasant.

Bored, tired, hungry two-year-olds don’t just cry. They wail. They sob until they shake and hiccup. Their faces crumple in utter, inconsolable anguish.

As adults, the only time we cry like that is when somebody dies or when we have our hearts very badly broken. We never allow ourselves to wail in agony simply because we are tired, because we are hungry, because we feel needs beyond what is possible or plausible or even rational. We tell ourselves that such behavior is self-pitying, self-indulgent, babyish.

I used to have a rule, when I was a teenager, that I was not allowed to cry. It was a rule that I broke a lot at first, but with practice, I got pretty good at complying. I associated crying with self-pity, and I felt that it was very important not to ever feel sorry for myself. Self-pity was a foolish, self-indulgent, wasted emotion. Crying was a sign of weakness and defeat.

As an adult, self-pity has become one of my favorite emotions. I find it sweet and nostalgic, like looking at old photographs of that teenager who was so determined never to feel the emotion that has now ironically come to be equated with her.

Perhaps my love of self-pity comes from the fact that, the older I get, the more convinced I am that my emotions come from my body. You can’t really stop yourself from feeling angry when you are treated unjustly, even if you know your anger is counterproductive, or from grieving when someone dies, even if you know it was the right time for them to go, or from falling in love, even when you know it’s a bad idea. The more I pay attention to it, the more self-pity seems to spring from that same carnal, physical place, that same cocktail of chemicals in the brain and blood. When I notice it, it tends to be a good sign, an effect of pushing myself and of feeling things fully.

For example, when I am working out, self-pity is a sign that I am training hard enough, just to the edge of running myself completely into the ground. I stumble into my kickboxing class, exhausted from the other kickboxing class and the running and weightlifting that I just did, and I think, a thought that is not expressed in words but in some more primal, pre-verbal language: I can’t. I catch clich├ęd, melodramatic phrases floating through my head, like Morrissey lyrics playing in the back of my brain: Why do I have to do this? Why is my life so hard? I’m so, so tired. I don't think it's possible to be this tired.

Once I become aware of these thoughts, I smile in pleasure. They are like old friends, and I know it’s a privilege to get to be pushed to the place where I feel those things. Their illogic is part of their beauty, because our emotions are so often illogical, and that is what makes us bodies and not just minds. It’s only when we try to align our emotions with logic that we evoke all the bad connotations of self-pity: self-centeredness, self-righteousness, lack of generosity, blame. To enjoy self-pity, we need to accept that we have bodies and emotions that make us feel bad sometimes, and that there is no one at fault for those bad feelings; they’re just a crappy part of being alive.

I had lunch a while ago with my friend Samantha and her two-year-old son. He told her that he didn’t want to eat anything. She ordered him some fruit and yogurt, telling him that if he didn’t want to eat it, she and I would.

When the food came, Sunny sat staring at his beautiful bowl of creamy yogurt and plump, ripe berries.

“Are you going to eat any?” Samantha asked him after twenty minutes had passed and he still had not touched his food.

“No!” he said, shaking his head decisively.

“Not even one little bite?” Samantha asked, holding a tantalizing red raspberry under his nose.

He clamped his mouth tight and shook his head again.

“If you don’t want any, we’re going to eat it,” said Samantha. “Karin, do you want some fruit?”

I grabbed a giant blackberry out of the bowl and put it in my mouth. “Mmm, yummy,” I said, trying to persuade Sunny to share my enthusiasm.

Instead, his face erupted into a rictus of utter despair. Like thunder following lightning, it took just a moment for the uncontrollable sobbing to break.

“What’s wrong?” Samantha asked him, seeming honestly perplexed, as the couple behind her turned to stare. “Why are you crying?”

Sunny was weeping so forcefully that he could barely talk. “Because…now…I can’t have it all!” he wailed.

This illogic is what makes tantrums so beautiful. They express some fundamental part of the human condition, pure want, pure dissatisfaction. When I see children screaming in a store, often their parents aren’t even trying to reason with them or appease them or punish them, because the tantrum has taken on a life of its own, disconnected from its original cause. They aren’t crying because Mom won’t buy them a stuffed animal or a candy bar, or because they have to stand in a boring line instead of going to the park right now. They are crying because the void of want is so vast and gaping that it is impossible to fill. Two-year-olds are realizing, for the first time, that once we get to the point of lamenting that void, it is too late to fill it, and all that is left to do is scream.


brain said...

Tantrums are a lot less adorable when the self-pity comes from a 40 year old engineer. Mustering any kind of compassion in that event can be extremely difficult.

mlucas said...

This is a good one. Morrissey references and unhappy children.

This is a pretty funny meme that's going around...

matt lucas

Karin Spirn said...

Aw man, that's awesome. Except I can't decide whether I hope it's real or I hope it's not real.

Anonymous said...

nice post karin. i especially like the ending. -k.

Melinda said...

Hey hon, I just had a two-day-sour-puss tantrum and thought of your insightful post.

I've really loved the most recent ones. My brain has been a mush pot the last week, though, so it'll take me a while to think of something smart to say about each.

Karin Spirn said...

K, you are the master of child-appreciation, so I'm glad you approve. I'm still not sure it's a good idea to narrate Rebel Without a Cause to three-year-olds, though.

Melinda, glad you are liking them! I've liked the last few also. I want to say you don't need to think of anything smart to say, but that's a lie--I really want to hear what smart stuff you have to say!

Karin Spirn said...

By the way, Melinda, what were you having a tantrum about?