“Oh dear!”

I turn towards the source of the sound.

And this is what I see:

  • A boy (probably 3-4 years old) lying chest down on the concrete path,
  • A man pushing a stroller (presumably the father) looking at the boy, and
  • An elderly lady wearing a pained expression with one hand placed over her heart.

It’s a quiet morning in Melbourne. Early enough that there’s little traffic on the street and even fewer people in the gardens. I’m taking my usual morning stroll, savouring the cool air before the Australian summer kicks in later in the day.

The lady, presumably the source of the exclamation, has stopped in her steps. And she’s staring at the boy.

It takes me a while to piece together what’s happened: the boy tripped over. Though you wouldn’t have guessed – based on the lady’s pained expression, you would’ve thought she was the one who fell 🤷🏻‍♀️

I brace myself for an ear-piercing shriek, a wail, a cry, anything… It doesn’t come.

Mind you, I’m still walking as I observe. I’m not just standing there gawking like an idiot 😒 So as my footsteps bring me closer to the scene, I’m able to see the boy clearer. With his eyes wide and wandering, he looks dazed… and maybe a little in awe? It’s as though he’s soaking it all in: the dirt on his hands, the lower vantage point, the cool concrete…

And unlike the elderly lady, the father is cool and calm. With one hand on the stroller and the other outstretched towards his son, he says, “It’s okay. Come here.” The boy takes a second to work out that he can’t possibly wiggle his way over like a worm, and he eventually stands up clumsily, waddles over and places his small soiled hand in his dad’s palm.

And in that instant, it struck me how, as a society, we’ve been conditioned to cry, whine and thrash around when we fail. I say “conditioned” because it’s drilled into us from a young age – my initial expectation for an ear-piercing shriek when the boy fell is a prime example of this.

As I continue walking, and the elderly lady continues to stand there with a pained expression, I wonder if the boy would’ve reacted differently if she was his caretaker. I once read somewhere that humans (and primates) have mirror neurons that basically help us learn through imitation:

So if the boy fell, and the first thing he sees is someone’s pained expression, he’s naturally going to mimic that. And if someone fussed over him and made a big deal out of his fall, he’s also going to feel like he’s entitled to cry and whine about it. And overtime, this will become his understanding of how life works:

It doesn’t matter if it’s just a small stumble in the gardens, or something bigger like a breakup; because that will always be the way he reacts.

By no means am I saying that I don’t whine like a baby from time to time. Because I do. I’m scared sh*tless at the thought of falling – something that has become painfully apparent to me in my handstand practice 🙃

But maybe, if we’re able to recognise this pattern in ourselves, we’re more likely to make a change. It doesn’t mean that we’re perfect all the time, but maybe it will allow us to approach failure with the same kind of wonder and curiosity that the little boy showed, and learn to see failure for what it really is – a chance to stand up and try again.

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