At dinner, she spoke a little bit about it, telling us that her teachers had threatened she would miss a field trip if she didn’t listen better.
“Uh oh,” I said, trying to strike the balance between empathetic and didactic. “What was going on?”
“I had the issues,” she said.
Her mother and I looked at each other, puzzled. “What issues?” we asked.
She shrugged. “I didn’t listen. I had the issues today.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” her mother asked.
“No,” she said, “it’s too ridiculous.”
Just a reminder – she’s four. I can only imagine what dinner conversations about bad days are going to be like ten years now. (Actually, I imagine they’ll be exactly like this one.) Mondays are tough and more likely to be bad days than other weekdays. And, like most bad days, it’s not entirely other people’s fault. The more we drew out of her, the clearer it became she contributed to her own bad day.
“No one wanted to play with me today,” she said.
“They didn’t?” I asked. “What did they say to you?”
“They said I was mean and they didn’t like me.”
“What made them say that to you?”
“I was calling them names.”
“Oh. I see…”
So it’s true: she had the issues.
I can completely identify with her. After all, my worst days are not days where annoying things happen to me. They aren’t days where people seem to treat me rudely or dismissively; days when work doesn’t get done or some project fails; days when I am unexpectedly inconvenienced. Those things are not fun, of course, and don’t usually make it to my list of Good Days. But the worst days are days when I get into a frame of mind such that everything is awful. Often, something on the above list might provoke me into a gloomy, stormy mood, but not always. Some days I just wake up in a bad place and the day follows me there. My worst days are not days where the outside world is mean to me; they are days when I am the one with the issues.
My daughter’s insertion of the definite article in describing her issues struck us as cute and funny at first. I imagine she heard one of her teachers say something like, “You’re having issues today,” and she heard the ing sound as a the sound, interpolating this as “You have the issues today,” much like one would have the sniffles or the shits. How many times a week do we hear someone – ourselves included – say “I’m having issues.” It’s a popular vernacular term, and I have no problem with one of her teachers using it to describe her.
I think there’s some powerful – and unintentional – wisdom in my daughter’s mishearing the definite article. Generic issues, I mean, we all have those, am I right? But the issues, that’s different. The article “the” is often used to indicate something that is known as superior, such as “That is the camera to own,” or “They are the team to beat.” It is used to refer to proper nouns of particular significance; i.e., the Smoky Mountains or the Beatles. Anyone can have issues, but when you have The Issues, well, that’s of particular concern and import.
More than drawing attention to the significance of said issues, however, I think the definite article “the” draws attention to the most insightful aspect of one’s possession of issues. “The” can be used in place of a possessive pronoun when referring to someone’s belonging, body part, or possession. “I went to answer the phone,” or “I got kicked in the shin,” or “It’s in the car.” The implication, in all these examples, is that “the” stands in for “my.”
So when my daughter says “I had the issues,” it doesn’t just mean “I had the issues” but also “I had the issues.”
Our encouragement to her after a day of having the issues was, in its way, an invitation for her to take ownership. We told her she could do better the next day; that she could work to listen better; that she would have more friends if she didn’t call people names. But she was already taking ownership – linguistically, at least. It must have worked: Tuesday was a better day, she got to go on her field trip, and her friends have started playing with her again. It seems an important lesson to learn at her age – well, at any age – that a really bad day isn’t just about what happens to and around us, but how we respond to and internalize those happenings.
Generic issues are everywhere; we have them all the time. But our day only gets ruined by certain issues in particular – you know the ones. They may be different from mine, but we all have our issues. And they are our issues. That’s okay, we’re entitled to them, but if they’re going to ruin our day, we should claim them so they don’t claim us. Those truly bad days are usually happening inside of us. The issues get the better of us – that’s why they are the issues. But we have them, so we can respond to them.
Next time my day spirals out of control, I will think of my daughter. And I will have the issues.