Learning to Love the Spoiled Brat

By James Michael Burke, Words for the Journey


Recently, there was a thought-provoking interview with Matthieu Ricard, the French writer and Buddhist monk, on Krista Tippet’s radio show, On Being.  A wonderful and wise teacher, he offered this reminder:

…we should acknowledge at the same time that you can be miserable in a little paradise, have everything, so-called, to be happy, and be totally depressed and a wreck within. And you can maintain this kind of joy of being alive and sense of compassion even in the worst possible scenario, because the way you translate that into happiness or misery, that’s the mind who does that.  And the mind is that which experiences everything, from morning till evening.  That’s your mind that translates the outer circumstances either into a sense of happiness, strength of mind, inner freedom or enslavement.  So your mind can be your best friend, also your worst enemy, and it’s the spoiled brat of the mind needs to be taken care of, which we don’t do. 

What grabbed me and made me laugh was that last phrase, “the spoiled brat of the mind needs to be taken care of.”  Now, we can look at that phrase in a very New Jersey way and take that spoiled brat out for a one way trip to the Meadowlands.  I have tried that, but he keeps reviving himself and hitching a ride back to Richmond.  I have tried to drown him in bourbon, but that usually only ends up giving him center stage.  I have also tried to dress him up as one of my favorite characters – my edgy Irish temper, even expressing my admiration for his feistiness.  I mean, after all, I rarely actually disagree with him; it is just that he is no master diplomat.  The thing is, I had never used the term “spoiled brat” to describe him, but when I heard Ricard use that term, I knew his name at last. 

My spoiled brat has taken to waking me up in the middle the night over the past year…often at around 3:00 AM.  He likes to get up early and apparently he wants company.  He’s good at getting it too.  He likes to remind my reactive self of every reason to tackle one “problem” or another immediately…often with the result of causing two additional problems.  He likes to remind me of how my life sucks next to the lives of others.  Comparison is one of his favorite late night games.  He knows every weakness in my psyche and seems to love playing at the master control board of my neuroses, periodically flipping the “throw a pity party” switch…and I have duly obliged him all too often. 

Needless to say, he is an expert in distraction, irritation, and anger and I have to admire his capacity to sow discord wherever we would go together.  But, over time and perhaps with too much broken sleep, I realized that someone had to parent this spoiled brat.  This time I was not going to resort to my old New Jersey tactics.  Oddly enough, hearing Ricard’s term “spoiled brat” actually opened up my heart to this pesky little guy and the first image that came to my conscious mind was not of Rumpelstiltskin where the fellow ends up destroyed.  The first image to come to my conscious mind was rather of me carrying this spoiled brat on my back in a loving and fatherly manner.  I actually felt for him, my little torturer, my pet.  And I smiled.  Suddenly, I felt much more gentle and soft, recognizing that the little man was tired and, like an overly tired kid, sometimes just needed a ride home on one’s back.  And he needed to be told that everything was going to be okay…and cajoled, “Just rest, little man.”   

Through some daily meditation and journaling, I have been working on recognizing when he is getting cranky and just creating some space for understanding without giving into his demands.  He may be permanently restless, but I am learning that I don’t have to be.  The process parallels all those wonderful psychological approaches to recognizing the many far flung parts of ourselves.  To say that we want to integrate those into our “personality” is probably not quite right, but we do have to sit with those parts of the “self” and somehow arrive at a negotiated settlement with them.  Meditation, compassion, and definitely humor create the necessary space to recognize the many challenging devils that plague us and like the devils of old (not necessarily “evil”) we need them to grow.  It kind of sucks, but so does life very often.  Just because it sucks, though, that is no reason to run away from it.

It has been easier to get my spoiled brat back to sleep these days.  It has been easier to not let him get me all stirred up over things that come and go.   But sometimes he still gets his way.  It is an ongoing learning and loving process.

These days in American politics, we have someone who is very skillful in acting out his own spoiled brat on the grand stage.  His spoiled brat controls him and, unfortunately, can have a huge negative impact upon us.  However, perhaps he can be a helpful reminder of how important it is to learn to manage our own spoiled brat.  Certainly, the first step is to get to know our own spoiled brat by whatever name we call him or her and then to find our path to living together.  It often begins with a very uncomfortable look in the mirror into the parts of ourselves we do not like.   

Dave Matthews, one of my favorite artists, never seems to have a hard time recognizing his “dark side.”  He did so beautifully in “Don’t Drink the Water”:

I live with my justice

I live with my greedy need

I live with no mercy

I live with my frenzied feeding

I live with my hatred

I live with my jealousy

I live with my notion

That I don’t need anyone but me.

Matthews has no problem recognizing his inner demons and that, to me, is the great path to allowing the complexities of our characters to be splayed open and placed upon the table.  Naturally, then it is about what we do with that complexity.  Matthews’ raw honesty of recognizing the base elements of our personalities has always been refreshing.  The New York Times columnist, David Brooks, has done a great deal of good work in this area related to traditional motifs such as sin and selfishness and his language works for many, including me to a degree.  I imagine we all have to find our own language.  But for now, I am favoring mostly compassionate but firm parenting…with always a healthy dose of tender humor.  The little man is getting cranky now…time for a brief meditation and some soothing for the poor guy to get him to catch up on his sleep.  May we all temper our spoiled brats with compassion and, as Aeschylus wrote, “make gentle the life of this world.”

James M. Burke works primarily as a consultant and confidant to those who serve in the public sector.  He enjoys helping people link their personal meaning with work to promote a good (at least) 8-12 hours of a life well lived.  He has several lifetimes of internal demons with whom to work, but likes taking a break from that by appreciating the wisdom his dogs have to teach and taking walks with them by the James River.  Sometimes chasing a tennis ball with zeal and savoring home cooking teaches more about what matters than anything else – joy in the moment.

Emma Peugh