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The Wood Pile Made Me Cry: fight the epidemic of narcissism...


I pulled into a parking lot and noticed a pick-up truck filled with chopped wood. It was 1990, my freshman year of college. My response took me by surprise. When I saw that truck, I started to cry. Let me say this again, wood stacked in the bed of a truck brought me to tears. So odd. To be fair, my fragile, home-sick heart was triggered rather easily by sentimental flashbacks, and this was one of them. It feels outlandish that this scenario made me emotional. And yet as I think about it, not at all. What strikes me the most is how much this experience taught me. It was the revelation of a life lesson. Times like these that provoke a bizarre response get underneath the earth of our humanness. If we pay attention to what is going on inside of us, when we resist shoving all the emotion away, we will maximize the lessons learned from seemingly insignificant moments, the moments that form a full life. After some reflection, I knew what the tears were about.

“Don’t plan a thing for next Saturday, it’s family work day. We will be working outside all day.”

My mom would make the announcement. My dad would make the list. There was no compromise. It was expected that we kids would give up our Saturday to do a full day’s work around the yard. This date was set aside to prep the house for winter or spring, whichever was next. We would roll out of bed, totter down the back staircase to the kitchen and take in a big breakfast filled with protein. As kids, our top priority, before we started the tasks, was to find our “box” radio and extension cord. We propped up Mark’s bedroom window and stabilized the radio on the sill. Lionel Richie, Madonna, The Cars, Wham, Chicago, Huey Lewis and the News…one 80s song after another would drift out into our workspace.

Some tasks were easy, some were strenuous; we would need each other. One job led to another. Load up the mulch from the mound delivered the day before, plant flowers everywhere, cut the grass, dump overgrown brush and weeds in the woods, clean up the barn, pressure wash the deck, rake and burn leaves, sweep the entryway…and take the chopped wood from the barn to the side porch and stack it ordered along the wall.

The wood pile.

The smell. The bugs under the flaky bark. The shavings on our wool sweaters and scarves. The ice chunks on damp wood. The small, easy-to-pick-up pieces and those that break your back. The dry wood that was fire-ready. Dad would back up the station wagon to the barn and we would form the three-person assembly line. One by one we would pass the pieces along, tossing them into the back of the car. Slowly, dad would back the car right up to the steps on the side porch and we would again form our line again. Piece by piece until the entire wall was filled. To the left of the stack was the side door to our family room where the wood burning stove stayed roaring all winter long. We were glad the wood was close by.

Narcissism, at its core, is a preoccupation with the self, a sense of entitlement, and a lack of empathy. Adults who are narcissistic developed this isolating trait from childhood in an environment that communicated, “you are the center,” “our lives orbit around your needs and wants,” “you are extra special and can be and do whatever you want,” “your needs are more important than ours or anyone else’s.” Given a few years of this kind of parenting and these expectations on life don’t go away.

My tears began to surface when I saw stacks of wood because so much of who I am, my past, my development, my connection with my family, my love of the ordinary parts of life, come from those work days, and the many responsibilities around that house. This upbringing made me a part of a family and a home. I was made to help care for this house, my parents and my siblings. I was even taught how to care for wounded birds and baby deer looking for food in the middle of winter.

More and more research is showing that chores protect your children from narcissism. Chores remind kids that life in your house is NOT all about them. They are a part of a unit, and the household requires a lot of work to function. Kids are a significant part of that. Your house, the roof, the clothes, the food, the plumbing, washer and dryer, and stove are not standing at attention to serve your kids. And neither are you as parents. Each member of the family has a part to play. Being involved in chores reminds your kids that they are submissive to your leadership and direction as parents. NO entitlement here. And though they roll their eyes, this is the pathway that produces security and confidence in your children.

Secondly, chores teach life skills and responsibility. Everyone has one shot at these developmental years. This is the window for your kids to learn that life requires competence and confidence. How to cook a meal, how to clean a bathroom, how to make a phone call, how to write a check, how to do laundry, how to organize a closet, how to load a dishwasher…too many kids go off to college with so few life skills. The result is insecurity and anxiety as they can’t navigate the basics of adulthood. When every task is done for a child, the outcome is a stunted adult. An adult who expects others to do the work. An adult who doesn’t function well with a team. These workdays were my field experience, my “internship” preparing me for life outside of my parents.

Thirdly, chores attach us to one another. Those work days built memories for my family. We worked together, we leaned on each other, we problem-solved together, we danced to the music, ran inside to grab drinks and Tastykakes for each other, we lifted the heavy stuff together. We had dirt under our fingernails and smelled like the outdoors. Now in mid-life, my siblings and I still talk about those family work days. We knew we were no better than anyone else. All of us got dirty. Though my parents could have likely afforded a landscaping crew, they knew that would rob us, impair us and steal memories from us. As adults, we know what it means to work hard. And best of all, we have learned to spot the needs of others as well. What we learned in our yard, we can do in someone else’s yard.

People are at their best when they see themselves as a part of the team of humanity, when each of us sees that we have work to do to keep the world running well. We are at our best when we look out for one another and relieve each other of a heavy burden. I either live for myself, or for others. I am either a self-stuffing individual or someone who finds fulfillment in serving. I either look for ways to redeem and refresh the earth or I look for ways to get what I want. I either work as one on a team or I expect others to do the work for me. God has intended us to care for not only his creation but also those in need. Narcissists wander by the hungry, the grieving, the overwhelmed, the lonely, the one who needs help moving, the one who is recovering from surgery, the one who lost his job, the one who needs extra hands to clean up the yard. The narcissist notices none of these needs.

What kind of adult do you want your child to become? What you require of your kids will impact who they become. My parents led the way. I would help stack and pack and unload the wood, or I would watch TV and let my parents do it, waiting on them to stoke the fire when I got cold.

Now, years later, I ache for those days. That sense of home sets deeply into my heart. Security. Purpose. Accomplishment. Teamwork. I’d give anything to go back and stack that wood, to prep the fire to warm us in the cold winter months on Timberlake Drive.

Just thinking about that wood makes me tear up.

©2020 by Dawn Poulterer-Woods