when my photographer brother was preparing my son for his senior photo session, he asked connor to bring along a few of his favorite things. his thinking was that interacting with these objects might make for some natural and contented portraits. connor brought his inline skates and guitar. two years later, having been given the same pre-session speech, my daughter brought her “momma blankie.” my favorite photo from the session is of her from behind, perched atop a four foot tree stump, blanket wrapped around her like a cape, and hair blowing in the wind. it reminds me of when i would pull up to kindergarten car line to find her with that same momma blankie wrapped around her head like a turban. that blanket has an important place in many of our family stories and she claims that i periodically threatened to take it away if she got out of bed as a preschooler. i cringe to think i may have done this. it seems a discipline far too harsh to imagine...even now.
today i took my nephew shopping for his 10th birthday. among all of the objects in the brightly lit toy store was a small section of “build it yourself” items that caught his eye. after several minutes of comparison shopping he settled on a very fancy “security safe.” not only would this amazing container hold his most treasured objects (at least those that would fit in a 3 inch by 3 inch cube) but it also touts a buzzer alarm, a combination lock, and a key (that could be added to his new lanyard). “this is not just a toy, this is an important present” he said, on the way home. when i inquired what made it important and what he might keep in his heavy duty safe he responded without even thinking, “my blankie.” this is not what i had anticipated as a response.
blankies are important. most of us have one. some of us have several. many of us don’t realize we have them nor do we cuddle up with them because they have taken on different shapes altogether. technology, hobbies, habits, possessions of all sorts, and even people have come to fill the role of security blanket in so many of our lives. these things make us feel less alone, give us something to hide ourselves in, and often come to mean so much to us that we are loathe to go without them.
security blankets are part of a category that mental health professionals call transitional objects. transitional objects are things that help one hold on to important aspects of a person, place, idea, or feeling as they move into relationships with new people, places, ideas, or feelings. when a parent leaves their newborn they may leave a t-shirt they’ve worn as a comfort object for the baby if he or she cries. the shirt smells like the parent, therefore, easing the discomfort of being with another caregiver. this is a transitional object. when moving from one home to another a person might bring a momento from the first home to the second to make the new dwelling feel less foreign. this is a transitional object. coffee doesn’t just wake people up in the morning. it also serves as a transitional object from home to car/bus/bike to work/school/meetings. the warm cup, the smell, the feel of hot liquid down the back of your throat. all of these things make you feel good and comforted and, strangely, less alone.
hence, the blankie.
nostalgic connections with our blankies aside, the goal of using a transitional object is to eventually be able to do without it. kaija no longer wears her blankie as a hat. she can sleep without it. she can leave it at home. she’s moved past needing it. this is because transitional objects are healthy when used as tools. they are useful in helping an individual overcome the fear of the unknown or the gaps that are encountered in moving from one developmental stage to the next. while attachment to them is necessary for their usefulness, full fledged, long term dependence upon them transforms them into something else altogether. many of us understand this and live packing our transitional objects from one place to another, making it difficult for us to fit into spaces of all kinds.
the world can be an unsettling place. we move at a rapid pace. in moments of stillness or stress we find ourselves bereft of healthy coping strategies. in the absence of such, we grab for those things which move the stillness or numb the stress. we reach for something to eat. or drink. or watch. or listen to. we check facebook or instagram or tumblr or twitter or any other number of technological transitional objects. we busy our bodies and minds. we titillate our emotions. we find ways of bringing ourselves from one moment to the next instead of being fully in the moment we are in. and all the while we become less capable of coping. of being present. of thriving.
kaija wrapped herself in her momma blankie at school in order to hold on to the comfort of home even when away from it. i am guessing that many of us can relate. we aren’t comfortable when we’re alone in a crowd so we gather our digitized social network around us like a blanket, burying ourselves in our phones and rescuing ourselves from the moment of discomfort. we don’t know how to slow down when we’re moving too fast so we escape the moment of pressure with all its accompanying messages (yawns, tension head aches, distractibility, fatigue, racing thoughts, and the like) by grabbing yet one more caffeinated beverage to get us to and through the next action packed moment.
what would it cost us to put our blankies down? to leave them at home? if this feels like too much, what would it look like to at least use them with intention? what skills might we seek to learn to help us use our transitional objects as, well, transitional? not habitual. not as crutches. to use them, rather, as tools to help us move into places of greater comfort, freedom, and groundedness. might we need to learn to be uncomfortable? to handle awkward moments wherein we feel bereft of skills? could deep breaths, prayer, meditation, asking for help, or any other number of actions help us remain in a moment without having to rely upon an object? if the goal of an object is to help steady us as we move into new spaces then shouldn’t we be preparing to give them up? anticipating the freedom of moving about in the world unencumbered by them? learning to leave them in the safe?