Remote Misses, Eustress, and My Kids

Full Disclosure: This is an affiliate link to Amazon. But it’s an awesome book and totally worth your time to read.

On our drive out to Utah, Bonnie read aloud to me some of the time. The book we read was Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath. It’s a thought-provoking book that explores why people or groups often succeed in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems. In particular, he looks at how things that at first glance are disadvantages can become tremendous strengths.

There is a web of related concepts from the book that I’ve been thinking about. For instance, he introduces the idea of “near misses” and “remote misses.” (Much of this next section is me paraphrasing and summarizing from Ch. 5) This terminology comes from the work of J. T. MacCurdy, who studied the psychological effects of the London bombings during WWII. In particular, MacCurdy was trying to figure out why the bombings didn’t cause mass panic and hysteria, but were instead met with an indomitable resolve among the British.

He theorized that when a bomb falls, it divides people into three groups: casualties, near misses, and remote misses.

Casualties got hit. They don’t really affect morale because morale “depends on the reaction of the survivors.”

Near misses feel the blast, they see the devastation, they might even be injured. For them the blast is a deeply traumatic event. Their morale is very low.

Remote misses have the opposite experience. For them, the bomb hits some distance away, so they hear sirens and maybe even hear some explosions, but they aren’t really confronted first-hand with the devastation. After experiencing several remote misses, they get a feeling of invincibility. On some level, after a person emerges unscathed from the experience of their worst fear, nothing else seems so bad.

Gladwell ties all of this discussion into the idea of “desirable difficulty.” Essentially, not all difficulties are bad. They can act to make us stronger, better people as we overcome or compensate for them.

To use an example from my own life, I was cast in one of the lead roles of the high school version of Les Miserables when I was 18. It was the summer after my senior year, and I had never done a stage show in my life. I had never even taken an acting class. The director would say things like “take a few steps upstage” (an incredibly simple stage direction) and I would frantically look over at my friend who would point to where she wanted me to go. I just had no idea what I was doing. However, by the end of that experience, I had gotten a nice crash course in basic stagecraft that was incredibly useful to me during my degree in vocal performance. The experience was very hard at the beginning but it offered me to opportunity to experience tremendous growth.
The ideas that Gladwell discusses remind me of some of the psychology and physiology classes that I’ve taken. There’s a concept that comes up called “eustress.” Basically, it means stress that is good or beneficial, as opposed to “distress,” which encompasses all of the negative effects of stress.

The source of the stress can be anything, it’s the response to the stress that matters. Do you perceive the stress as something positive or something negative? A difficult challenge, or a dangerous threat? Deadlines are a good example of a stressor that can cause either eustress or distress. For me, a looming deadline is usually a huge boon to productivity, but there have been a few times where I’ve been totally overwhelmed, and that deadline has caused paralyzing worry and fear.

I use these ideas when I’m teaching voice a lot. I think Gladwell touched on this in his book, but that’s not where I first encountered it. Basically, if you imagine your mental state as a continuum with boredom at one end and feeling overwhelmed at the other end, then you want to try to keep students in the middle so they’re challenged but not overwhelmed. If you can keep your students in that zone, they’ll enjoy themselves and learn a lot too. If you go too far to either end, then both learning and enjoyment take a nose-dive.

Returning to Gladwell’s book, he has a long section about children who have lost their parents-fairly pertinent reading for Bonnie and me right now. He cites a variety of studies which suggest that a strikingly disproportionate number of extremely successful people lost one or both parents in their youth and childhood. In that same vein though, a striking number of convicts also lost one or both parents early on in their lives.

So after reading and thinking about all of this, I am left with several unanswered questions. If my kids lose their mother, what do I do to help them emerge from that difficultly as stronger, better individuals? I don’t think you can reasonably call the death of a parent a desirable difficulty, but there must be some way for something good to come out of all of this. I like the analogy of the near misses and remote misses, but this is different. It’s like trying to turn a casualty into a remote miss. How do you do that? How do you pull your kids out of the path of an incoming bomb? How do you patch them up once they’ve been hit? These are the questions that actually matter, and I have no idea how to answer them.

6 thoughts on “Remote Misses, Eustress, and My Kids

  1. I promise not to leave pointless comments on all your posts (though I know you love sappy cliches). Thank you for directing family members to your blog. I appreciate getting a glimpse of how you’re dealing with all of this. Since learning of Bonnie’s prognosis, I have been most concerned about what the future holds for YOU, but your thoughts fill me with optimism. (Insert lame sentence about how everything will be OK.)

    • Thanks Anne. I’m glad you’re enjoying my blog. I much prefer writing out my thoughts to actually talking about my thoughts.

  2. As I understand it, there is a lot of research that indicates that kids who lose a parent through death do much better emotionally than kids who lose a parent through divorce. That probably doesn’t make the immediate situation any easier but could be comforting in the long run.

    • Yeah, Bonnie and I have often observed that we’d rather have a strong relationship and have one of us be sick than have a messed up relationship and have us both be healthy. I could also see how that research would make sense because children would likely not experience as many issues of guilt internally, or be pressured to choose sides externally. However, no matter how it happens, losing a parent is never the ideal situation.

  3. Adam, that sounds like a great book. I have thought about this post a lot! And I feel like maybe it is presumptuous of me to think I have anything to add. But I wanted to share some thoughts with you. We have some very good friends that we met in our ward in Pheonix, Jake and Jordan Robertson. Jake was diagnosed with a stage IV glioblastoma (very aggressive brain cancer) in February and I have been following their blog explaining some of their thoughts and experiences. Jordan was given a booklet from her bishop called “The Uses of Adversity” by Carlfred Broderick. She then shared this quote from it: “I commend the gospel with all of its auxiliaries and the temple to you, but I do not want you to believe for one minute that if you keep all the commandments and live as close to the Lord as you can…that bad things will not happen to you. And when that happens, I do not want you to say that God…was not keeping his promises to me. The gospel of Jesus Christ is not insurance against pain. It is resource in the event of pain, and when that pain comes, rejoice that you have resource to deal with your pain.”

    I told a good friend in our ward about your situation recently and also about some of the things L had said to mom and dad about her mom not getting better until she was resurrected and that you would all be together then. My friend told me later that she thought about you guys all that night and was so impressed with how well you had taught your daughter. My point with all of this is, I think you are already making your kids stronger individuals with the gospel teaching you have given them. The gospel will be their resource against their pain.

    Another thought also comes from the Robertsons. Jake posted as a guest on his cousin’s blog, and I thought he had some great insights. http://ablogaboutfamily.com/1/post/2014/07/guest-blog-the-other-estate-plan.html

    If your children were to lose their mother, I don’t think you could ever call that a remote miss, but I liked Jake’s ideas that putting plans in place could still help him be a part of his childrens’ lives. I think having the time to plan ahead and for the possibility of that situation could help.

    One other idea also came from a recent conversation with Jordan. She has heard that having lots and lots of short, even just 30 seconds, videos of a parent doing everyday things with their children, like reading, singing, holding, doing dishes, playing at the park, etc. is very therapeutic if the child loses that parent.

    You are such beautiful and wonderful people and parents. I truly do admire both of you! And your children are so good and sweet. And I think you are both amazingly strong individuals. Your children are being well taught. I just think you are already doing more than you realize!

    • Thank you for the kind words and the links Kristine. We’ve been working on ways that Bonnie can still connect with the children, so she’s making a quilt for R, similar to one that she already made for L. She’s also recording herself reading some children’s books. I believe she’s also writing some letters for the kids for them to get in the future. I hadn’t thought about the short videos, but I think that’s a great idea. I’ll mention it to Bonnie and see what she thinks.

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