Happy birthday! I have written you a letter each year since your birth; this is the fourth. The first was to welcome you into our family. The second was to tell you that when you were 20 months old we discovered that you had some autistic characteristics (pervasive developmental disorder). And last year I wrote about what your parents were going through trying to get you special education services through the school system.
This year, I just want to wish you a happy birthday and congratulations on what has been an important year for your growth and development. Some of your repetitive behaviors have improved, as has your speech impediment. You have begun to develop an internal moral compass, observing what is right and what is wrong with people’s behavior. But the news that brought tears to my eyes was when your mother told me that in your preschool play, you were finally able to sing this year with the other children.
But not all of your growth has been easy. For several months before your birthday, your parents told you that 4-year-olds don’t use binkies. In the weeks leading to your birthday, I could see you were both excited and scared about giving it up. On the big day, your mother took you toy shopping, and traded your binky in for a toy.
When you got home, though, you cried almost all night, saying “I don’t want to be 4 anymore; I want to be 3.”
Sam, many years ago a British psychoanalyst named D. W. Winnicot created the term: “Transitional Object” to describe how you move from dependence on your parents to independence. Things such as baby blankets and pacifiers represent a parent’s touch and help you manage anxiety and insecurity during this transition.
Now that you no longer have your binky, you have nothing to protect you from your anxiety and insecurity. That’s why transitions are hard. Those transitional objects give us the illusion of security and when they get lost, we are left with the insecurity that was always there.
If you can understand, Sam, that with all change is loss, then you can see that the loss must be mourned. Remember how you cried most of the first night? You’re not alone. When adults experience change, they also ache inside and long for what they once had.
So what can we do? First, understand the truth about the problem. The problem is not the loss of the binky, the problem is the feelings you experience in the wake of those losses. You see, Sam, eventually almost everything we become attached to is lost, including most of our possessions, loved ones, and even our youth, health, and life itself.
Many of our possessions help us manage our anxiety and give us the illusion of security. Like you used your binky to help you feel secure, other people who feel insecure use food or drugs or alcohol to manage painful feelings. Some try to make a lot of money and buy things such as bigger houses and pricey cars to help them feel secure.
Even people can be transitional objects. Many people divorce because their spouses don’t make them feel secure. But all of these things are transitional objects and none of them really works.
So what does work? There is a Sufi saying: “When the heart weeps for what it’s lost, the soul rejoices for what it’s gained.” So as much as anyone who loves you would like to rescue you from your pain and give the binky right back to you, that wouldn’t be a good idea. Each stage of growth involves loss and each stage involves gain. When you feel the pain of loss, please don’t grab at something to take away the pain. Just feel the pain and have faith that pain, like everything else, is transitional. On the other side of the pain, you will learn something about who you are.
And when you are in pain and longing for what you had, remember that you are not alone.
Before I became a quadriplegic, I loved playing golf. So after my accident, when it was time to give my clubs away, I cried for many days. During those days, Sam, I wished I were younger also.
By the way, last week when I visited, you didn’t bring up missing your binky one single time.