“I said that’s enough!”
“You’re not listening to me!!”
“I told you I needed a minute. You’re pushing me!” my husband yelled before he ran up the stairs and slammed the door.
I sat on the bottom step and cried. I looked for a way to escape the profound discomfort I was experiencing, but there was nowhere to run. Leaving in the car would only make the situation worse.
It was the early days of my marriage and I had taken a small disagreement and expanded it to door slamming and tears. Back then, I was exceptionally good at this.
My husband and I have changed a lot since that day. Knock-down-drag-out fights rarely happen now. When they do, we are both embarrassed and after we have calmed down, will sheepishly wonder how we even got to that point. How had the argument even started?
For a long time, I thought that these passionate quarrels were a sign that we had passion between us. That we were fiery soulmates destined for greatness. Now, I see it differently. And because I am a person who wants to keep the peace, to create peace, and who always (at least) tries to see many sides of a situation, my ability to take a volatile event and make it worse has always bothered me. Why can’t I just stop? Why must I always poke the bear?
A need to be right.
Fear of abandonment.
A lack of healthy boundaries.
Like I said, we have both changed a lot since those early days. I have learned to let go, to be ok with being wrong, and I have worked hard to transform my rage into allowance and patience with myself. I’m better at not needing “closure.” I’ve learned that I don’t need to understand, or even know, every second of my husband’s inner life.
We have also changed because we chose to have children, which inherently changes everything. My kids are the two best teachers I’ve ever had. Children are a wild paradox. They are experts at letting go. They are also experts at poking the bear.
It must, therefore, be a human impulse, illustrated through a common and overused joke: “Don’t press that big, red button! Whatever you do, don’t press that button!”
So what do we do? We press the button and act surprised when disaster unfolds.
How and when did we learn to poke the bear? To disregard blatant consequences and give it one final shot, just to “be sure?” I did it as a kid and younger adult, and now I watch my kids do it. Just the other day my daughter spilled some paint during a craft project and I asked her not to touch it for fear that the paint mess would only spread. So what did she do? She ran her fingers through it and got paint all over her new t-shirt, and became so upset about her new t-shirt getting stained that she actually spilled more paint. I didn’t say “I told you so.” I just cleaned her up and told her we’d get the stain out, and to be more careful next time. And I thought about myself at her age because I see that we are remarkably similar.
The first time I remember hearing the phrase “poking the bear” was when I was about 8 years old. I grew up in the 80s and early 90s – a simpler time when parents left their kids alone in the car while they ran into the dry cleaners. A simpler time when cars had built-in cigarette lighters. I knew those things were hot. I had seen my grandparents fuse countless cigarettes against the gray coils inhaling until the lighter burned hot-orange and tobacco smoke wafted into the air.
This time, at 8-ish years old, I just had to be sure. My mom was inside the dry cleaners and my sister and I were in the back seat. I leaned forward, yanked the lighter out of the dash, and poked the gray coils with my right pointer finger. I burned myself so bad that I screamed, dropped the lighter, and cried. Then my sister started crying because I was crying. And needless to say, when my mom returned to the car, she was exasperated and worried.
“What happened? Why is everyone crying?!”
I showed her my finger. I didn’t have to explain what happened because the built-in car lighter had branded the coil shapes into my finger pad, and in the painful moment of contact I had flung the lighter onto her seat.
“Well, why did you do that??? You know it’s a hot lighter!”
“I just wanted to see if it was hot when it was gray,” I whimpered.
“Well, it is, Christi! Why do you always have to poke the bear?”
Upon reflection, I giggle at the story. I defend my younger self and push it off to curiosity and the childlike ability to be so in the present moment that consequences are not considered. My mom was right though. I think about all of the times I wasn’t, or haven’t been willing or able to let go, and find I’m more contemplative.
I think it’s something we can all choose to change, but maybe we are addicted to physical confirmation. We don’t trust. We have to “be sure.” We can’t help but poke the damn bear.