Jacob was five, and he was very excited. The very next day, he and his family would be going on a special trip. He was looking forward to the trip, and so was his ten-year-old sister Miriam. The family would be driving down from North Carolina through South Carolina and then ultimately through Georgia to visit Disney World in Orlando.
Jacob’s mother Rachel was looking forward to a change of scenery, and to the family conversation they would have on the long car ride. She smiled as her mind travelled to previous trips she had taken with her husband and children – so different from the misery of the car rides with her own parents when she was a child, on which she and her siblings had had to be silent so that her mother could focus on the map reading and her father could focus on attempting to follow her mother’s directions. Thank G-d for today’s GPS directions including automatic rerouting whenever the driver misses the exit!
When everyone else was finally in bed sometime after 11 PM, and Rachel was leaving the house to go to the 24-hour supermarket for snacks and caffeine for the trip, she tripped over a large pile of devices and toys that Jacob had gathered near the front door for the trip, and cursed under her breath. Then she smiled indulgently at the evidence of Jacob’s enormous enthusiasm.
When Rachel finally got home and joined her husband Ari in bed to get some much needed sleep, it was close to midnight, and she accidentally woke Ari up, and he was grumpy about it, but when Rachel kissed him softly and apologized, letting him know that she had been out buying his favorite snacks and caffeinated beverages for the trip, he looked at her with love and gratitude in his eyes, apologized himself, and they went to sleep wrapped in each other’s loving embrace.
When the alarms went off at 6 AM, there was a lot of moaning emanating from various family members’ rooms. Nobody seemed to want to get up in time for their planned 7 AM start – or rather, ‘the boys’ did not want to get up. Miriam bounded out of bed just like her mother Rachel, and wanted to insist that Jacob and Ari get up immediately too, and for a moment, Rachel had felt like insisting too. She was a bit more “type a” than the rest of the pack: she liked things to go more or less as planned, preferably precisely as planned.
But Rachel was quite an excellent problem solver, too, and so she asked herself why precisely it really was critical for them to leave at the time they had previously agreed.
If they did not leave at the time they had agreed, they would get to the hotel late at night, or maybe even miss their hotel reservation. Hmmm. Maybe they could let the hotel know they would be arriving in the middle of the night and ask them to hold the reservation for them?
Jacob and Ari really were tired and clearly wanted to sleep a bit more.
Remembering how unpleasant she had found it as a child to be forced awake when you want to sleep, Rachel told Miriam about how it had felt like torture when her own parents had awoken her from a deep sleep for a long car ride, and how she had felt violently sick most of that car ride; Miriam readily agreed that the trip would be more fun if everyone was well-rested and not feeling sick. So instead, mother and daughter had a nice breakfast together, enjoying talking together about their upcoming trip. It also gave Rachel a chance to check whether Miriam had any further ideas for what would make their trip extra enjoyable.
When, after another two hours, father and son were still fast asleep, again, the thought crossed Rachel’s mind that they were going to arrive very late, and she asked Miriam what she thought about the situation. Wise beyond her years, Miriam pointed out that it would not be fun to do a long car ride with half the family being irritable due to lack of sleep. “If we don’t make it to the hotel, we could sleep in the car,” she said optimistically. Rachel chuckled at that idea but agreed that waking ‘the boys’ was not an option. She decided to do one last long and vigorous workout before the trip, which would not have been possible had certain members of the family had not been oversleeping. Working out was something Rachel enjoyed and often did not have time for. Win-win! (Rachel made a mental note to figure out how to solve this problem of often not having enough time to work out. Problems are soluble, she said to herself.) Miriam played a few last rounds of her current favorite videogame on the big screen.
By 10:00, Jacob and Ari were up, though still a bit bleary-eyed, and the family finally set off on their trip to Disney World.
Now, could that problem have also been solved by giving Ari an extra-strong cup of coffee and half an hour for the caffeine to kick in, and bundling Jacob up warmly and carrying him gently to the car so that that he could continue sleeping in the car? Sure…… That might have been fine too. But that’s not what everyone came up with this time.
What makes the difference between families who experience such events as a little stressful or a lot stressful, and those who don’t. Jacob and his family are lucky. They are one of those families that usually figure it out.
I find that the difference between families who solve problems well together and those that don’t, has as much more to do with their commitment to each other than to any specific outcome. Logically any number of solutions to problems like the ones above could lead to results in which everyone was having fun and enjoying themselves. The trick is being open to possibilities – adaptability – and having a commitment to figure it out instead of coercing. Problems are soluble.
There is something else going on, too, in these happier-than-usual families: there is a profound sense of love that they have for each other and fundamentally they each want to find a solution that makes the other person happy as well as themselves. They positively enjoy the smiles on each other’s faces. No one really feels happy if someone they love is unhappy. We solve the problem together. We find a way even if in that moment they themselves are out of ideas. And they lift us up when we are down too. We figure it out.
Families like this seem to take many detours in life, metaphorically and actually, but it is that sense of adventure when they are together trying to solve problems – that commitment to each other’s happiness – that knowing that problems are soluble and that optimistic willingness to figure it out – that makes all the difference in the world.
Being creatively adaptable – creatively finding ways of being comfortable and having fun or finding solutions that are a big YES!, seems to be what is key. There is no recipe for how precisely to do this: no two situations are ever exactly alike, so any prescribed course of action will not apply in any of a number of different situations. Our ideas can never be perfectly true, let alone perfectly applicable all the time in all cases.
But this creativity/adaptability muscle can be strengthened when families know that they love each other and are committed profoundly to the happiness and wellbeing of each other.
One sense of what it might mean to be perfectly smart, then, is to be creative enough to be able to find a way of being comfortable in any situation. For that literally to be true one would have to essentially know everything about science and morality to be able to transform any situation, however bad, into something good. No one does. But saying that we can’t perfectly do that does not mean that we can’t do much better at that. It is about being creative, and knowing that there is a way: we are committed to figuring it out, and we are optimistic that we will.
Rachel and her family know that it does not have to be a disaster to pull into a hotel later that night or even miss the reservation entirely if they end up needing to sleep along the way. It does not have to be a disaster if everyone does not get to bed on time. Plans with immediate family should be flexible, not seen as cast in stone like a legal contract. We know and love each other. It is important to have integrity with respect to legal contracts and plans with people outside our family, because other people are relying on us being as good as our word and may take actions and invest in our word in a way that they would not if they knew we would not keep our word. But with our family, there is room for adaptability and problem-solving in the moment, and finding a real solution we all prefer is important.
As it turned out, since the family started so late, they were still quite some distance away from their hotel when Ari felt that they would not make it to the hotel. He wanted to find a hotel earlier and cancel the reservations, regardless of the cost. It simply wasn’t safe for him to keep driving. Rachel, who had been up since 6 AM after six hours’ sleep, was in no better shape to take over the driving. Now what?! The family started discussing what to do. There was a touch of irritation as they started their discussion.
Ari pulled into MacDonalds. Rachel ordered a Big Mac. For whatever reason, that inspired Ari to start singing a song his father had sung him in his childhood whenever they had ordered Big Macs: “Two all-beef patties special sauce lettuce cheese pickles onions on a sesame seed bun.” Some of you, or your parents or grandparents, may remember that song. It was the jingle sung in ads selling Big Macs in the 1970s. Ari’s Dad was known for his corny songs, and so was Ari.
The children had never heard that song and started laughing, and neither of them could believe that a song like that had once been on television selling Big Macs. So Ari looked it up on the internet and proved it to everyone by playing the commercial on his iPhone. “Two all-beef patties special…”.
The kids chuckled and everyone started singing in the MacDonalds the 1970s MacDonalds to-go line, to the amusement of a few other patrons. And then, everyone started thinking of other songs that they could sing from catchy or meaningful commercials.
At that point, everyone’s attitude had changed: Rachel was now wide awake and felt able to drive the extra two or three hours to get the hotel for which they had reservations that night. And Ari too felt awake and felt sure that he would be able to continue driving in the event that Rachel’s energy levels dropped.
So they all piled into the car again, Ari relaxing and singing songs while Rachel drove, until finally they pulled into the hotel room at 11:00, rather than 7:00. No one was the worse for wear.
Obviously solving problems is unpredictable, and in the above described situation, it might have been solved in a different way entirely. Or perhaps things might have gone less well. Problems are soluble, but sometimes we do not manage to figure it out instantly. But in this case this family is very good at solving problems because of their commitment to each other and because they are always searching for what is fun, interesting and entertaining for everyone. They do so because they love each other and they know that the happiness of their other family members is inextricably woven into their own happiness. And because they are committed to figuring it out.
Throughout the day in one situation after another, the family members are devoted to each other: that is the glue that keeps the family finding solutions that everyone enjoys. They are not always successful: But they are successful enough that a day that starts off with seemingly important time-related plans being abandoned, and that for some families could have ended so badly, actually ends with feelings of comfort and togetherness. Adaptable families are looking for solutions that everyone, children included, find good about. They figure it out. And they relish figuring it out. That is what being smart is.
Michael Golding, M.D., 2022, ‘A commitment to figuring it out’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/a-commitment-to-figuring-it-out/