Saturday, June 9, 2012

Thermometer or Thermostat? (Published in Healthways, 1973)

"Say, Pat, what are you, a thermometer or thermostat?" I had just yelled at my six-year-old in the presence of my friend whose respect for my childrearing ways would no doubt go out the door with her. My childrearing has tended to degenerate into child roaring over the years, what with five lively sons and an unlively husband.

In the few minutes that followed I was busy separating the two younger ones from a tussle that began over who was going to clear which end of the table. By then my friend’s comment was forgotten in the rush to straighten things up, drop off my friend, pick up two of the boys from the golf course, another from football practice, fix dinner, persuade the boys to help clean up the table and dishes, and get ready for bed and prayers.

When night finally dropped its comforting mantle (in the darkness we seem better able to "see" problems in perspective, without the day's limitations of minutes, sounds and demands) and I was finally alone, that comment hit like the 5 a.m. alarm. Whatever did my friend mean, thermometer or thermostat? I had a sleepily vague idea of what each meant, but how did a couple of scientific instruments apply to me?

Curiosity killed sleep so I checked the dictionary: "Thermostat, a device that controls temperature and is set to a desired temperature level; Thermometer, an instrument used to measure the temperature of gases, liquids or solids." In other words, the thermostat controls and regulates the environment, and the thermometer is controlled by outside factors.

So long as the environment remains cool and collected, so do we. But have something happen, oftentimes minor, and our inner measuring device records it quickly and sometimes drastically. And those we live with can read our thermometers through our faces.

I personally know a lady who allows one of her children to all but break her thermometer daily. She confided that all the child has to do is get up in the morning with his usual long face and even longer hair and, depending on her own reactions that day, he can send her plummeting down to cold disdain or soaring up to hot fury. The two of them then infect the rest of the family, possibly to the point where a real thermometer is needed.

The thermometer-oriented person is walking in others' shoes, allowing them to take him wherever he permits his emotions to be guided. The person controlled by outside influences has no means to regulate himself to a consistent and moderate response to the inevitable ups and downs of life. He may eventually resort to uppers when down and downers when up.

The thermometer/thermostat metaphor can be applied to maturity, a term under which many present social and moral sins are being committed. Maturity itself implies growth, of which knowledge and wisdom are a vital force, knowledge being our range of information and wisdom being our judgment based on experience with the knowledge we have accumulated over the years. We are learning every day, but this knowledge does not always bring maturity and wisdom. Maturity rightfully means control--the very function of a thermostat. When the emotional temperature gets too hot or too cold, the wise person is able to maintain his own equilibrium without absorbing the extremes. By remaining calm he can also regulate the emotional flare-ups of those around him, through his consistent and reliable attitude.

Our thermometers are controlled by too many incidents in our lives. My own personal fever-inducers are dirty clothes thrown everywhere but the hamper (I've often been told we have enough boys for a basketball team but somehow they manage to miss the basket!), snacks at any hour, noise, and forever more of it, footprints on the newly-cleaned carpet, etc., etc., etc.!

If we think about it, at the end of each day we'd be surprised at what has controlled us: someone's thoughtless remark, another's criticism coupled with our own sensitiveness, an unwanted and fruitless interruption, an inconvenient telephone call, another's way of doing something when we know how to do it better (well, we’d like to think so!)--silly things, really, incidents that wouldn't bother us if we had our thermostats in proper working order. Personally I find that certain quotations and reflections serve as excellent thermostat controls. One of my favorites is, "This, too, shall pass."

For the mother there are days when it seems that the diapers and soiled clothes and sticky, dirty floors will never end. For the person who has a sick loved one the days turn into one endless night. For the man who must earn a living there are times when the job seems like a vise ready to stifle the very life out of him. But--thank God--they do pass!

I like to picture the thermostat as having two settings that bring us the control we need, TIME and LOVE. Together these two attributes help us to "keep our cool!"

Published in Healthways, 1973

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