At the bottom of Harris Street, in the Sydney suburb of Pyrmont, an area previously owned by the water police has been redeveloped into a harbourside park. Harris Street ends steeply and a set of stairs has been built from the road down to the park.
One day, we were having lunch at a café at the bottom of the stairs. At the top of the stairs was a boy about 5 and a girl of two to three. The little boy was freely running up and down the stairs. The girl was frightened and could not move. She burst into tears. Her brother started to tease her.
Watching all this, was an old couple eating their lunch. I suspect they were the children’s grandparents. The grandmother left her meal and climbed the steps. She took the girls hand and walked her to the bottom of the steps. She then walked her back up the stairs. Then down again.
After walking her granddaughter up and down the stairs about five times, the old woman went back to finish her lunch. Now confident, the girl started running up and down the stairs with her brother.
The grandmother’s sensitivity is evident in what she did not do. She did not ignore the little girl, refusing to be interrupted during her lunch. She didn’t shame the little girl, yelling at her to grow up and stop crying. She didn’t get angry with the brother for teasing her. Nor did she enter deeply into the girl’s distress, making the girls tears the issue. She just did what was required to help the girl overcome her fear and freely play with her brother.
It is in these moments that personality is formed. These experiences are wired in our brains. They determine how we respond to moments of vulnerability as adults. They effect how we believe the world will respond to us.
If we assume that the little girl was generally responded to with the care her grandmother showed on that day, then we can predict how she will respond when feeling vulnerable as an adult. She will not be so susceptible to crippling feelings of shame when unable to manage a situation. Rather, she will intuit that she is not on her own, that help is available. She will be freer to take risks that will make her life more expansive.
At times when there literally is no one to help her, she will be supported by an inner strength, a self-esteem developed from someone believing she was worth the effort.
The brilliance of Chrissy Hynde, the lead singer of The Pretenders, was that, like the grandmother, she knew how to get the tone just right. This ability to find just the right tone can also be heard in Hymn for Her and Back on the Chain Gang.