There are many different bears in this world: Winnie the Pooh is stuffed with fluff yet philosophical and, in my opinion, unfairly labeled as a “bear with very little brain”. And Yogi Bear – thought to be smarter than the average bear based mostly on his ability to steal picnic baskets from park visitors. Of course, there’s Fozzie Bear with an indomitable comic spirit despite constant heckling from the balcony. Also the easygoing, practical bear, Baloo, from The Jungle Book, looking for the bare necessities of life. And don’t forget Smokey the Bear, passionate activist and educator who is always on the look out for danger.
But this is not a blog post about bears – it’s a blog post about physics. More to the point, it’s a blog post about physics and bears and the way fate and the Cosmos conspired to wrest control from my stubborn, desperate, clenching fists, because I sure as hell was not giving it up without a fight.
But first…physics and bears:
Back in my previous universe, I was a fifth grade teacher in an elementary school. Part of our science curriculum was basic physics, including Newton’s first law of motion, also known as “The Law of Inertia”: An object at rest tends to stay at rest, and an object in motion tends to stay in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force.
I wrote this on the white board in the front of the classroom while my students dutifully copied it into their science notebooks.
Any grumblings there may have been when I asked them to copy down their homework at the end of class quickly turned to smiles and even some cheers. Their homework was to bring in a large toy car or remote controlled vehicle and a stuffed bear for the lesson the next day. The toys would be used during science class to conduct an experiment. They would work in pairs or groups, place the stuffed bear atop their vehicle, push the car with a quick motion to start, and end by crashing the car into another car or a wall. Sounds violent, I know, but keep in mind that these are kids, and it’s very likely they had done this many times before in play. The only difference was now I was asking them to make observations about the motion of the bear.
My students laughed and chatted the next day as they pulled cars and bears from their backpacks. They split into groups and found spots in the classroom to drive their stuffed bear around, colliding into walls, radiators, desks, and other cars. The room filled with “Vroom! Vroom!” driving sounds and high-pitched “EEERRRT!” sounds for brakes, followed by loud crashing sounds. (Really, how could you do this activity and NOT add sound effects?) They noticed that when they first started pushing the car, the bear fell backward. When the car came to a sudden halt after slamming into something, the bear flew forward. A bear at rest remained at rest even though the car began moving. A bear in motion continued moving forward at the same speed, even though the car had stopped.
But what about the ‘unless acted upon by an outside force’ part of Newton’s Law?
The din subsided into problem-solving discussions when I gave them their final task: Use materials found in the classroom to design a support or safety system to protect their bear from the effects of inertia.
Thinking back now to that classroom and those students really is like stepping back into a whole different universe…one in which I was a bear completely in control of her car.
Sitting on the roof? No way! I was behind the wheel of my vehicle, swerving to avoid chair legs, bookcases, radiators, and the other insane stuffed bears that were riding on top of their cars. I could see that wall coming from a mile away and have enough time to not only avoid colliding with it, but also plan out an alternate path to avoid it, a “Plan B”, if you will.
Yes, I felt fully in control of my life back then and not because I had great confidence and bravado. It was actually the opposite. I had a desperate need for control in order to ease my constant anxiety. I felt safe in my world as long as I was the one who was driving.
Somehow I was plucked from the driver’s seat and placed on the roof the moment my child entered this world. My car unexpectedly veered off the planned course onto an alternate path to my Universe “Plan B”, and I am currently a stuffed bear hanging on for dear life to the top of a speeding vehicle that is fully in control of a highly energetic, complex little boy with autism.
There are times on this crazy ride when I feel I’m coming apart at the seams, my stuffing beginning to show. And I’ll admit that my own personality is partly to blame.
Since my son was born I have felt compelled to respond to his every need. I choose the word “compelled” quite purposefully here, because indeed I felt instinctively driven to respond to my son’s cries. It was more than just a sense of maternal responsibility – I actually felt physical symptoms of anxiety when my infant son was crying. Even when others around me offered to help, I just couldn’t give up that control. It was not that I didn’t trust others to comfort him. As strange as this may seem to someone who has not had anxiety, to NOT respond felt almost unbearable.
But this was no ordinary baby. He was a discontented, colicky, “high maintenance” baby, and his needs only became more complicated as he grew older.
What’s more, I felt weird about letting people clean my house and help with chores when they offered. It was my family’s mess, after all. Besides, my Type A personality was convinced they wouldn’t clean it the way I would clean it anyway – stuff would get put away in the wrong places, towels would be folded differently, and I’d probably just end up all out-of-sorts instead of relaxed.
So what does all this have to do with bears and physics and a grand conspiracy of fate and the Cosmos?
Well, if you happened to be the kind of person who feels compelled to do everything yourself and you were to, let’s say, have a child who lacks the ability to communicate and requires help for everything from eating and dressing, to regulating emotions, to occupying what seems like every waking moment, all in addition to your normal tasks like cooking, cleaning, and shopping, it may take hitting a wall before you realize…you can’t do it all.
That wall for me was the Epstein-Barr virus, the cause of mononucleosis (just one of the many delightful illnesses carried home by our little host monkey from his preschool). This illness made me dizzy, short of breath, and more exhausted than I have ever felt in my whole life. I kid you not – I was at times so tired I had difficulty responding to someone talking to me, like it took too much energy to get my thoughts to combine with the air in my lungs and the vibration of my vocal chords to actually speak words. Nope…Sorry…Too tired.
I had to let go of some of my control. I had to accept the help of others. I needed to recognize my limitations and say no to those things I couldn’t handle…just focus on the bare necessities.
The experience made me realize the importance of a support system – the “safety belt” that will keep me from flying into the next wall that appears in my path. It’s a support system for me AND my husband (who is also a bear atop his own speeding, swerving car.) That support came first and foremost from our parents, who babysat, cooked meals, picked up groceries, chopped wood, and mowed the lawn. Next were siblings and family members who repaired our cars, hosted holiday gatherings, and provided emotional support.
But having a child with complex special needs requires our support system to extend beyond family. As our parents have gotten older and our son’s issues have become more complicated, we’ve looked into community resources for respite, requested grants to pay for therapy in the home to teach our son self-help and communication skills, and attended workshops and meetings to connect with other parents, always on the lookout for materials and information to construct a more secure support system.
So now I guess you could say I’m a practical, passionate, philosophical bear learning to rely a little more on my safety belt while the inertia of life speeds me forward. Maybe with time (and a good sense of humor) I can learn to relax…just a little bit…and enjoy the ride.