I am 9 years old. My nose is cold and so is the metal of the seat belt as I pull it across my chest. It’s 5:30, already dark, and my mom, my sister, and I are driving to McDonald’s for dinner. The McDonald’s is across the street from the Marlboro Motor Lodge, where we live, and it’s cheap, so we eat there most nights. We’ve been living at the motel for two weeks, ever since things got uncomfortable at her friend’s house, where we’d been staying in their semi-finished basement for the five months prior. I don’t know why things went bad, but we left suddenly, and now our home is room 52, first floor, corner, by the soda machines.
We were stopped at a traffic light. “What would I do without you, baby? What would I do?” she says, looking over at me, crying, squeezing my hand.
Before all this started, life was good. We lived in a big, 2-story home in an affluent suburb, with a big yard and a swing set. Every house on our block was occupied by a family with a mom and dad and kids. My sister and I spent our days riding our bikes around the neighborhood and playing kickball with the other kids on the block. I thought all children in the world were raised in big houses on pretty streets with a mom and dad.
When the divorce happened, we had to move. My mom said it was my dad’s fault because he wouldn’t pay for us to keep living there. He was the breadwinner and she had stayed at home with us, so when they split, she had to go to work at Joey’s, a retail clothing store that served the segment of our town that liked to pay $79 for a t-shirt.
She cried all the time. When she wasn’t crying, her sadness and fear and anxiety were so dense that it made the air around us thick and hard to breathe. For many years, when I recalled those days, I thought that sadness was my own. By the time I was in high school I had resigned myself to the story that I had been born with it and I would never be happy. Until I saw the movie Life is Beautiful.
Guido is a lighthearted Jewish bookkeeper in 1930 Italy. He falls in love and starts a family. Then the Germans arrive and he and his son find themselves in a Nazi concentration camp. Pretty awful huh? But instead of accepting the story that they were in the midst of terrible circumstances, he changed the frame. He told his son that the Holocaust was a game and the grand prize was a tank, and even if it seemed scary, he should remember that it’s only a game and do his best to win.
Guido’s son was a very lucky boy. His dad created a version of reality for him that was completely generative – that allowed and encouraged room for play and hope and an empowered attitude in the midst of what were dire, atrocious circumstances. This frame that Guido gave to his son with such passion and conviction was the strength that got his boy through the Holocaust. It’s what allowed him to witness the atrocities and not let his spirit crumble. It’s what allowed him to survive.
What this movie taught me was that the actual events that occur in our lives and the meaning we give them are two very, very different things. We choose the meaning. We take the events and we tell ourselves the story. We choose our perception.
My mom got a divorce. We lived in a friend’s basement for months and then in a motel for months. That happened. But the frame my mom chose for these events – the story that she told herself and therefore what she conveyed to us about what was happening – was that we were in the midst of a great tragedy. She communicated to us that we were not safe, that what we were going through was awful, and that the feelings we should have were sadness and insecurity.
I know she did the best she could with the tools she had. But ever since I saw Life is Beautiful I’ve wondered how my experience would’ve been different if Guido were my dad. Instead of feeling scared and insecure in the motel, instead of being so damn sad and overwhelmed and confused, maybe it could’ve been a great, joyous adventure. Maybe McDonald’s every night would’ve been like an awesome prize, instead of a punishment, a symptom of our sad state of affairs.
Maybe the trauma I experienced was not a result of suddenly being poor, displaced, and living in a motel but rather the trauma of having a mom whose primary, unspoken communication to me was that I was not safe.
When we are children, our parents are the meaning makers, so we don’t have control over the meanings they convey to us. Sure, it would’ve been really neat to have a dad like Guido. I think having a dad like that would’ve taught me how to be happy no matter what my external circumstances. But that’s not what I got, and that’s okay, because I’m an adult now.
I get to make the meaning for my daughter and for myself. So is life going to be a joyous game or a great tragedy? What if Guido were diagnosed with MS? How would he frame those circumstances for himself and for his son? I’m pretty sure that if the Holocaust couldn’t convince him to take on a victimized, defeated frame, MS wouldn’t stand a chance.
Despite a challenging financial situation, despite an uncertain health situation, despite less than ideal family circumstances, despite how utterly alone I feel in my life right now, despite all the pain and fear I may feel, I must learn from what I went through and choose with decisive intention to be more like Guido than like my mom. I must believe that no matter what, life is beautiful.
What frame are you choosing for your life right now?