A Little Girl"s Forgiveness Of A Shark

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Six year old Lucy Magnum was understandably upset when she was bitten by a shark as she boogie-boarded in shallow waters off North Carolina's coast. Thankfully her parents acted quickly to get her out of the water and then applied pressure to her wound. Doctor's were able to save her leg.

While she was in the hospital recovering from her wound, an angry Lucy declared: "I hate sharks. I like dolphins way better." Hearing her anger, her parents explained that the shark ad simply made a mistake. It didn't know she was a human when it bit her. When her parents explained this, her attitude changed. "I don't care that the shark bit me," she told her mother. "I forgive him."

This cute and amusing story nicely pictures an important principle of psychological healing. The way you picture and explain an experience to a child can completely alter their emotional reaction to it.

People can behave like sharks sometimes in that they often make mistakes that can cause others a great deal of pain and suffering. Yet how you explain those things -- as either the product of intentional malice or the misunderstanding and imperfections of flawed humans -- will determine whether a child finds a quick psychological recovery, or stays stuck in a ruminative state of negative emotions that stays with them well into the future.

Children suffer injustices in their lives from others around them. When they do, adults frequently cause their child additional harm by generating reactions that teach their child a negative way of relating to the event. This is frequently more harmful than the original injustice. Remember a child's experiences are limited in nature. Their interpretation of that experience is gathered mostly from the attitude of adult's reactions to the event, and will endure into their future. When a child continues to be upset by a negative experience, it often has little to do with the experience itself, and a lot to do with how their parents have taught them to relate to the event.

As this shark mistook this child for a source of food, sometimes people make mistakes in the way they behave. Just as it feels worse to believe a mean-spirited shark is out to deliberately ruin our day at the beach by trying to eat you, it feels worse when parents react to their child's bad experiences with explanations of intentional malice from others. So be very careful how you teach children to see their world. You want them to live where good people sometimes make mistakes, not in a world where people are always out to get them.

Let's examine several ways to apply this story to our own lives.

Look for the innocence in others.

As we live our lives, we should always look for the good in others, as opposed to searching for injustice. As Lucy's anger against the shark disappeared when her parents explained a more innocent view of the shark's action, so to can our own anger dissipate when we try to understand the innocence in other people's actions. Psychiatrist Dr. Richard Carlson says, "I have found that, if you look deeply enough, you can almost always see the innocence in other people as well as in potentially frustrating situation. When you do, you will become a more patient and peaceful person... " *

Distinguishing between result and intent.

Never assume that others do hurtful things with the intention of hurting us. This is almost never the case. Just like shark bites, the hurt we cause one another is almost always an accidental outcome.

Understanding the needs of others.

Remember that behind every hurtful deed is an unfulfilled need. Just like hungry sharks that take a bite out of little girls, the hurtful behavior of others is always driven by a desire to fill some perceived need. We should always recognize their needs and desires as legitimate and worthwhile, even if some of the ways they go about trying to fulfill that need are not. Every action of every person is merely an attempt to either seek pleasure or avoid pain. Just as it's silly to hold a grudge against an animal that mistakes us for a meal, it's rather pointless to hold grudges against people who are merely trying to go about the job of securing happiness in the best way they know how at that particular time.

* Reference: 'Don't Sweat the Small Stuff,' by Dr. Richard Carlson, New Your Hyperion Press, 1977
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