Every day before kindergarten, my mom used to read me a story from a series of children’s books called “Sweet Pickles.” Each book wove a meaningful life lesson into the thrilling life of an anthropomorphized cartoon animal. Ironically, of the whole series, the only lesson I integrated into my 5-year old mind was, “People who break their legs get a lot of attention,” and even this vital truth was forgotten three decades later when my actual husband broke his actual leg.
So imagine my delight when I recently discovered the 1981 Sweet Pickles series hardcover set available on eBay! Alas, the universe was offering me a second introduction to life’s important lessons involving taxi-driving yaks and closet-eating hippos.
When the musty box-set arrived in the mail yesterday, I dug right in. In a strange turn of events, the beloved leg-breaking story line was actually a warning against jumping to conclusions, not a suggestion to bust a limb in order to gain affection and attention. Who knew? Anyway.
This morning, as I continued using reading-to-my-children as an excuse for a rendezvous with nostalgia, I was struck by a particular storyline: Sweet Pickles, in its narrative about a ruminating and self-defeating alligator, nailed the depressive mind.
“Who stole Alligator’s shoe” opens with an alligator defensively blaming her own innocent mistakes, small setbacks, and minor limitations on other people and things. She disparages her window and hammer when she cannot operate them to her satisfaction, and is convinced that someone stole her misplaced shoe. Alligator’s angry proclamation of “stupid hammer,” when she accidentally breaks her own window, is, to any overthinking therapist, an obvious statement of her own self-loathing, and a stereotypical manifestation of the whole psychodynamic “anger turned inward” thing.
In using denial and projection as defense mechanisms for her actual fears about her self, Alligator solidified a powerless and hopeless world view. If it is the hammer, and not the way she chooses to maneuver it, the outcome is out of her hands.
No one thinks it’s weird that I wondered aloud to my confused children, “what went on in Alligator’s life to make her believe that it was never okay to be imperfect, to make her defend against her alligator-humanity so tightly?”, right?
Then came the rumination and the real depressive mind games for Alligator. Like an uncontrollable landslide, the thoughts came barreling through her mind- this is terrible; this whole day and my whole life is horrible; people are out to get me; no one will help me; no one cares.
And the freaking genius Sweet Pickles authors effectively show the child-reader how those thoughts, although initially not at all true, somewhat became Alligator’s reality.
For a few pages, she wanders the streets and the park of her neighborhood on a mission to find the culprit who stole her lost shoe. Her mental filter, accusatory energy, reminding herself repeatedly that everything is horrible, unwillingness to engage when healthy hippo asked her to play, and visceral dismissiveness with positive pig’s offerings of compliments and help, actually lead to the self-fulfillment of Alligator’s initial prophesy. She indeed forwent playing and engaging with others for the alternative of isolation and spinning mental circles around hopelessness and powerlessness.
The lesson in Alligator’s story is not simply, “take responsibility for your own mistakes, because chances are, you misplaced your own shoe.” The lesson is, more broadly, “own your own happiness and your own life by noticing when your mind starts to play tricks on you and using every ounce of will within you to behave against those tricks.”
In an alternative ending, Alligator would have mindfully observed and released her negative obsessions (and possibly even realized her urgent and accusatory NEED to find her shoe-theif was a misguided attempt to achieve control after her powerless experience with the hammer.) She may have implemented an empowering growth mindset by spending twenty minutes practicing her hammer technique or devising a shoe organizational system. She probably would have taken a deep breath, done 10 burpies, engaged in a grounding exercise, and endured five minutes of mental agony to eventually flip her focus from negative obsession/rumination to playing catch with hippo.
Maybe if Alligator tried all that instead, she would have even noticed that while she was on a shoe-finding rampage, most of the other creepy animals playing happily at the Sweet Pickles park didn’t even have ANY shoes on. (Now I am not saying it was the author’s intent to showcase how we obsess-about and seek out things that fail to contribute to actual happiness- from perfection to fancy cars- but I’m also not saying it wasn’t.)
Just something to think about,
From the therapist who says sometimes a book’s depiction of seeking power, adequacy, and justification-of-misery through the managing of a hammer may be a symbol for seeking power, adequacy, and justification-of-misery through the managing of one’s relationship partner…. And I also would like to add that “taking responsibility for your own happiness” is an example of healthy boundaries in a relationship, even though I also know that it takes a superhuman amount of mental effort and sometimes a lot of therapy to be able to say, “screw you” to your spouse’s negativity while appropriately owning your own part and deciding to meet a friend at the mall to get rid of the lingering dark cloud.