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The human inhabitants of our world are struggling with a ruthless pandemic, and many are dying while the swans are returning to Venice and the fish are visible again, swimming below in the clearer waters of the canals.
Many years ago, as a beginning therapist, I learned the technique of the “time-out.” I asked couples caught up in repetitive marital arguments to take a break, retreat to neutral corners, and reflect. I wanted them to find a quiet space and take time to reflect on their own feelings and behavior before reacting. In that place of solitude, I asked them to consider how they might approach the issue differently so they might resolve the conflict. Are they listening closely to what their partner has to say? Do they understand their feelings and needs before responding? Or are they reacting to what they think they heard them say?
I used the same technique with parents having difficult times with their children. I remember asking one mother if she used time-out with her four-year-old son who was driving her crazy. She said, “I seem to have him in time out all the time. When he throws his temper tantrums, I march him off to the bathroom, put him inside, and tell him he can come out when he stops. He goes nuts in there, kicking the door and screaming. The problem is, he’s getting bigger and I can’t chase him all over house and physically force him into the bathroom.”
I paused a moment before I said, “Oh, that’s the problem, you’re putting the wrong person in time-out.”
She said, “What?”
“It’s you who needs to go into time-out.”
“Me?” she asked with a confused look on her face.
“Yes; you. The next time he throws a tantrum, I want you to take yourself to the bathroom and lock yourself in there until he stops,” I instructed. “You must not come out until he is quiet for at least three full minutes.”
She said, “And leave him alone out in the house? He’ll destroy it! He’ll break everything we own. And what if he walks out the front door and goes out in the street alone and gets hit by a car?
“It’s just an experiment.” I replied. “Just put all your valuables away and lock the doors. Trust me, he won’t do either. That’s just your anxiety talking. Are you willing to try?”
She agreed to try. I added, “And while you are in the bathroom, I want you to meditate; calm yourself down. Remind yourself you are a great mother trying to learn something new, and everything will turn out well.”
The next week she came in to report what happened. She followed the instructions, taking herself into time-out in the bathroom when he was throwing one of his worst tantrums ever. When she closed and locked herself in, he promptly parked himself outside the door, screaming and crying at the top of his lungs. He kicked and punched the bathroom door. She heard him throw himself on the floor, kicking and screaming. She thought she would explode. She had to cover her ears and sing to herself to block out the racket.
And then she heard nothing coming from the other side of the door. Her anxiety went through the roof. She thought, “Oh God, what’s he doing now. She uncovered her ears and heard him breathing on the other side of the door. She remembered she had to wait a full three minutes before she did anything. It seemed like a lifetime. After about one minute she heard him say something quietly to himself. She heard him say in his four-year-old voice, “This just isn’t working anymore.” She waited another minute before she opened the door. She pulled her son up, gave him a big hug, and had a good day.
She couldn’t believe it. “This just isn’t working anymore? Could a four-year-old really have such insight?” she asked me.
“Who knows…” I said. “Who cares.” You learned that taking yourself to time-out, relaxing, and waiting for things to settle down on their own, works.
So as I sit here in my easy chair in my living room, listening to Joni Mitchell singing to me in the background while I write this article, Mother Earth’s words come to me… to all of us.
She says, “I have sent you all into time out. I have sent this pandemic to you as your loving mother. To survive, you must go to your homes and be alone for a while. I am putting you in time-out to reflect, to listen, and to act. Give yourself time to reflect on how you have been behaving. Listen closely to what is taking place on the planet. It is serious. Take responsibility for what is going on in your environment; your personal environment, and the larger environment. If you are being a virus on my earth, then stop. If you are over-consuming and polluting, you must do better. Hold the earth in love. Care for it. Stop your pettiness and learn to love one another. I have the power to cleanse the earth of you if need be. Heed this warning you are experiencing. The life I offer you is a blessing; not a privilege.”
I’ve written and spoken the words she sent me for all of us to hear. We are all frightened by what is happening on our planet. Our way of life may have to change forever. If we are to survive, we must take ourselves to time-out. Spend these hours we have alone to reflect, to take care of yourselves, to remain physically and socially isolated until the danger is past. Be quiet and reflect on the state of ourselves in relationship to each other and our planet.
I love you.