For those of you out there who have not experienced the film Tangled, please allow me to give you enough information about it for the below story to make sense. Rapunzel (aka the lost princess) has spent 18 years trapped in a tower with the manipulative and highly sadistic Gothel. Gothel kidnapped Rapunzel from her royal parents' castle when she was a baby because of her magical hair, which Gothel uses to keep herself young. During the course of the movie, Rapunzel steals thief Flynn Rider's heart. So naturally he comes to the tower to save her. Unfortunately, he meets Gothel's knife upon entry. Pure Disney.
I had ample social criticism for such a movie before my toddler came into the world (can we talk about the misogyny involved in creating these personality disordered female villains, for example?). I did not intend to watch the violent Tangled or Disney movies in general with her. Alas, here we are. Pure parenting!
As my kiddo has developed enough language to ask about how the world and its inhabitants work, she has a trillion questions about everything, including Tangled. Ironically, as a psychotherapist I regularly steer clients away from "why" questions since simple causal relationships (i.e. this leads to that) rarely explain complex phenomena in a satisfactory way, especially when humans, and our many contradictions, are involved. Our answers to "Why?" frequently leave us frustrated and wanting more. In the realm of grief and loss, they also can keep us very stuck. Parenting a curious child, however, has shown me how my answers to her unending questions can help us both to practice don't know mind.
Mindfulness teacher Jack Kornfield eloquently describes the practice of don't know mind as follows:
Think of the earth spinning through space with hundreds of thousands of people being born and dying every day. Where does each life come from? How did it start? There are so many things we don’t know. Feel the truth of don’t know mind, relax and become comfortable with it.
Now, bring to mind a conflict, inner or outer. Be aware of all the thoughts and opinions you have about how it should be, about how they should be. Now recognize that you don’t really know. Maybe the wrong thing will lead to something better. You don’t know.
Consider how would it be to approach yourself, the situation, the other people with don’t know mind. Feel it. Don’t know. Not sure. No fixed opinion. Allow yourself to want to understand anew. Approach it with don’t know mind. With openness. How does don’t know mind affect the situation? Does it improve it, make it wiser, easier? More relaxed?
Practice don’t know mind until you are comfortable resting in uncertainty, until you can do your best and laugh and say “Don’t know.”
Becoming comfortable with uncertainty is no small task, so I'm grateful my child gives me ample opportunities to practice it. Every damn day. Now, back to the Tangled story. While driving my child home from daycare, we had the following conversation:
"Mama, can we talk about Tangled?"
"Sure." [Audible sigh I tried to conceal but probably didn't.] "What part do you want to talk about?"
"I wanna talk about when Gothel stabs Flynn Rider."
[Pained expression about my parenting choices.] "Okay."
"Why did she do that?"
"I'm not sure. People do mean things for a lot of reasons. Maybe something happened to Gothel when she was younger." [Internal dialogue and eye roll: Geez, Connie, what do you think this toddler is taking away from your vague description of childhood trauma!?]
"But why did she do that, Mama?" [Clearly unimpressed with the previous answer.]
"You know, we'd have to ask Gothel that."
"But why, Mama?" [Frustration mounting, and we're out of snacks.]
"Only Gothel can really know why she stabbed Flynn Rider. I cannot get inside her head."
"But why can you not get inside her head?"
"She would need to tell me what is inside her head for me to know what she is thinking."
[Long pause.] "Okay, let's ask her."
Every day, this child's inquisitions give me an opportunity to practice don't know mind. If I pause before answering her, I often find that I truly do not know the answer to her astute questions. I can acknowledge, with humility, that we need to seek out additional resources to respond more fully to her inquiries. Instead of reinforcing Gothel's line, "Mother knows best," I try to answer her honestly and not claim to know more than I do.
As Kornfield points out, ease and levity arise when we're not trying so hard to know everything. These days, amusement has largely replaced exasperation as I share with her the various knowledge sources we would need to visit to answer her questions in more than a rudimentary way. While I have pointed her to meteorologists, engineers, and physicists, she seems to be more accepting of "I don't know" as a legitimate answer.
Now the challenge is to prevent her from internalizing the sexist message that she cannot have deep knowledge as a girl. I'm also hoping to drive home that she has more than two options--the sweet, beautiful, compliant princess or the nasty, conniving, ruthless wretch--as the female protagonist of her own story.