A father and his three-year-old daughter enter a neighbor’s basement playroom. There are two-foot tall castles and a life-size stuffed lion; a doctor’s bag, a toy space shuttle, and one of those creaky bouncy spring horses that every child hopes for but few parents want to purchase. In one corner is a Fischer Price kitchen set with an oven, stove top, and full set of cookware. In another is a craft table stocked with markers, crayons, finger paints, and glitter glue. The child is mesmerized. There is so much to see, so much that excites her. But she is also terrified. This place is new and unfamiliar. She doesn’t know how it all works. She isn’t sure what she should do. Standing beside her father, she is frozen in a moment of choice. She wraps an arm around her father’s familiar leg and stares up toward his face with big open eyes.
According to the attachment theory of psychoanalyst John Bowlby, when children are alarmed they instinctively seek proximity with a familiar caregiver with the expectation that they will receive protection and emotional support. Like a buoy securely anchored in the ocean, the caregiver is a respite, a place of rest and security in a tumultuous world. If a caregiver is sensitive and responsive, a child will use him or her as a “safe base” from which to explore. It is a key part of child development and plays a significant role in forming one’s progressive ability to trust.
My personal and spiritual development doesn’t always feel very progressive. It often feels quite the opposite, like I am regressing back to toddlerhood, back to a place where I am having to learn everything all over for the first time. Being born again in a way that is first scary, and then exciting.
Less than a year ago I felt a lot like an infant, unable to do much more than coo in contentment or cry out in need. Sometimes, many times, I did not even know what what my needs were. I only knew when something wasn’t right, when I was hungry or lonely or scared or cold. So I cried infant cries, and God was gentle and patient. God soothed me with soft shushing and held me in warm arms. But the words that God spoke I could not comprehend. The assurance God gave I could not understand. I could feel it. I could sense that it would be okay, that I would be okay. But I did not know how.
I feel I’ve somehow moved on to toddlerhood, that I’ve established some level of autonomy and agency. But I am still so needy. So daily dependent on provision that does not come from myself. Financially, mentally, emotionally, my adult mind is not always sure that I can make it on my own. And even when I think I can, even when I feel safe and secure and capable of great things, even then I am still being provided for, whether I see it or not. Like a toddler with a juice box, a pair of sox or a new toothbrush. She does not think of where they come from, does not even realize that she needs them until they are missing or gone.
When people meet me for the first time (and I am forever meeting people for the first time) they often ask what I do, sometimes what I am doing. I typically say that I am a student in the middle of graduate school, that I write for a local newspaper and work as a high school tutor. All of this is true. But if I were a little more candid, a little more emotional, a little more “real” I might admit that actually I don’t know what I’m doing. That I’m striving. I’m guessing. I’m trying really hard to figure out what it is that God made me to do and why the passions and desires of my heart don’t all seem to be aligning with the opportunities placed in front of me.
In some respects I suppose I am playing, and I think that maybe this is just how God is parenting me in the this toddler phase of my life. There are rules that I have been given, the way any child needs to have rules, and there are boundaries in which I must live. There is a mandate to forgive. An instruction to be generous. An imperative to love at the risk of great pain. There are times when God’s will, like any parent’s will, is very clear. I know exactly what I should do (even if I do not want to do it). But then there are times when I am allowed to explore. When there is no one way to go or one thing to do. Rather there are many ways, myriad options. And like a child who has been placed in a basement full of toys, I have been given free reign to “go and play.”
But playing can in fact be a very scary thing. Exploration can be tiring and even dangerous, which is why, according to Bowlby, young children explore best when there is a caregiver nearby, a figure who serves as a safe base and protector. If the child is not securely attached, if she has been neglected in the past or does not fully trust in her caregiver, it is difficult for her to enjoy exploration, to even think of exploring because she is afraid of being abandoned.
But if that safe base is there. If she can trust that no harm will come as long as he is near, she will begin to venture out. She will begin to discover.
Really? the child thinks. I can play with anything?
As if knowing her thoughts, the caregiver urges, “Go on. I’ll be right here.”
But there are so many toys. Too many toys. The child does not know which one to play with. She is afraid of making the wrong choice, which might result in pain or disappointment. She is unsure of how much time she has in the playroom and therefore cannot begin to allocate it amongst all the sundry options.
There is the castle with the big pink towers that beckon to the part of her that has always believed she is a princess. There is the lion with his massive plush paws and his mane of sandy brown fur. The spaceship that might orbit the world. The doctor’s bag with which she could practice bringing comfort and healing. She wonders if it is okay to play this much. To feel this much. To enjoy this much. And when she looks back at her caregiver she is not given much guidance.
He does not tell her what to do. Rather he waits and watches and sees what she will choose. He knows what she is capable of. Knows what she is suited for. But he also knows that she must discover this for herself. That she must fail and falter and be hurt and disappointed. That she will put her shoes on the wrong feet and try her clothes on inside out, put the frying pan in the refrigerator and the stethoscope on the bouncing pony. She will make mistakes. She will do things wrong. She will fall down the steps when she is trying to walk in high heels and carry a tray of play dough cookies at the same time.
And the caregiver will see all of this. Will feel all of this. Will hurt with the child and celebrate with her. He will play with her when she invites him to play, and sometimes even when she doesn’t. He will intervene when she loses patience with herself, when the zipper to the bag of magnetic letters simply will not unzip and this seems to be the end of the world as she knows it. He will stop her from using the large kitchen scissors to make holes in her pink plastic watermelon. He will come and rock her gently after she slams her finger in the door and is in such shock and such pain that she cannot take in air between her loud rasping sobs. He will fawn over her finger paintings. Delight in her circle-spinning. And always he will be watching, even when she is completely unaware of this.
But first, before the child can play, before she can lose herself in discovering the world, she must feel that she is safe. She must believe that she is protected even after she has been hurt. She must know that her caregiver will never be very far. That he will not leave her unattended, will not lose patience or give up on her. Ever. She must believe that he will stay even as she leaves to explore. She must let go of his leg. She must learn how to trust.