Friday, August 18, 2017

Charlottesville and Little Children

Like most of America, I've been dwelling on the events that took place in Charlottesville this past weekend.  Pondering them in my heart.  Reading about them in what little spare time I have to do so, with three small children and a part-time job on my daily plate of responsibilities.

It seems that there's almost a requirement these days, when anything particularly horrific or offensive or tragic occurs, to take to our individual social media platforms and make known where we stand.  I have seen more than a few people declaring that "If you aren't speaking out against ______, then your'e part of the problem."   "Your silence is deafening," they say.

And yet, I don't actually think that everyone who isn't posting about this on Facebook is a racist, hateful, bigoted whathaveyou, of course.  There are other options, aren't there?  That one doesn't have words, perhaps, or that one doesn't feel compelled to add to the noise of social media, or doesn't believe it helpful, or simply feels called to act in a different, more personal or tangible way.

Myself, I have found myself wondering if the best tactic might not be to just ignore these crazy people so filled with hate.  Why are we giving them media attention?  Why are we giving them a platform for their absurd ideologies?  If we don't meet their protests with counter-protests, who will they hurl their hateful rhetoric towards?  If we completely and utterly ignore them, will they go away?

And then I thought of my young children.  And I thought of the long-standing conventional wisdom that to make tantrums or other bad behavior stop, parents should just ignore it.  And I remembered just how much I've always disagreed with that approach.

* * *

Yesterday, after a long afternoon of playing in the yard, Nell was helping me clean up.  Suddenly frustrated, she began to wail loudly: "MAMA!  I'm doing all this cleaning up and Ree isn't doing ANYTHING!"

For a moment I considered pointing out factually that Ree was picking up the orange peels they had scattered across the lawn, or logically arguing that Nell is five and Ree is three and the expectations are different, or even just saying flatly that life isn't fair and I was too tired to argue about it.  I even considered ignoring her outburst and simply not responding.

Then I tried to see past her yelling.  I got down at eye level with her, and I said, "Nell, I see you.  I see how much you help me around the house.  I notice your hard work and your helpful, kind heart.  I notice the way you try to help so I don't have as much work to do by myself.  I'm so grateful to have a daughter like you.  I really appreciate your help."

I didn't say a thing about Ree.  I didn't say anything to feed into the endless comparison trap.  I just looked at Nell, my Nell, and told her that I saw her.  I let her know that I appreciate her.  You see, I had a feeling that it was never about the work or even about the fairness of it.  Sometimes a person just wants to be seen and loved and known and appreciated.

And do you know what?  Nell happily smiled at me and said, "I'm sorry for screaming, Mama.  Actually I do love helping you!"  She picked up the books and the rubber balls.  And she went over to Ree and said encouragingly, "Marie, you're picking up too!  You're getting bigger and learning how to help!"

* * *

You can't live through teenage years without the realization that people who don't find love and acceptance in healthy places will find it somewhere.  The evidence is all around: gangs, cliques, self-harm, teen pregnancy.  We all need to be seen and loved, and will even go to extreme lengths to find our place in this world.  Even the most marginalized will always find someone; the magnetic human need for connection is just that strong.

Hate-filled groups like ISIS and the KKK know this, you know.  They prey on the lonely, the isolated, the vulnerable as they scour the internet or their own social circles for new recruits.  An angry person who feels marginalized or disenfranchised makes the perfect target.  If you're selling the age-old lies that there isn't enough to go around, that someone else is trying to take the happiness that's rightfully yours, well, in a lonely or hurting person you've just found a potential buyer.  

* * *

It's not so different from toddlers and young children, I think.  They, too, are apt to think that there isn't enough to go around.  They, too, are quick to claim what they deem rightfully theirs.  "Blood and soil," they might chant if they thought of it -- I was born here in this house, and these are my toys, and if other children come and try to play with my things, well, it's just not okay!

The trouble is that ignoring it will never work.

Children need to work through this long, dark tunnel of turbulent emotions sometimes.  They need to be heard and loved, even when -- especially when -- they're angry.  They need connection, not isolation; understanding, and rarely harsh judgment; empathy and common ground where it can be found.  You can't reason with them all the time.  You can't out-argue them.  You can't order them to stop feeling the sometimes silly things that they feel.   You can't meet yelling and acting out with yelling and acting out of your own.

I have attempted to make a verse from Romans my parenting vision: "The kindness of God leads to repentance."

I've found that my children are not so unlike I am: they want to be good, and will do so to the best of their abilities.  They want to please their loving parents, and to learn to subdue their own tempers and willfulness and overcome their temptations for naughtiness.  But they can only do these things within the limits not only of their prefrontal cortexes but also of their humanness.  What is it Paul wrote?  "...I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing."  

And so, I kneel down beside them and give words to their very big feelings: "You were playing with that toy.  She took it.  That's so, so hard.  You're really upset.  You weren't done playing yet!  You wanted more time."   And the wronged child feels my empathy as I share in the injustice of it all.  She nods, and wipes her tears with her hand.  "I'm really sad!  And my feelings are hurt!"  She's said it now, and she already feels calmer.  So I ask, "Can you think of a way we could work it out?  Can I help?"  But she's already running back to play again, and I overhear: "Hey, when you're done, can I have a turn again?  I wasn't done yet.  And next time, can you not take something when I'm playing with it?  You can ask me first!"  The younger one, perhaps caught off guard by the way the anger has dissipated, agreeably says, "Oh, okay!  I'm sorry!"  

They didn't even need my help this time, because we've done the hard work of reconciliation so many times together before. 

* * *

I'm ashamed to say it, but I don't have to look very far to find hate.  It's in my own heart.  It's in my own home.  Being an adult and a parent is more complicated, more confusing, more difficult than anyone can ever warn you it will be.  I find myself wanting to roll my eyes when my five-year-old stubs her toe for the sixth time in one afternoon and wails so very lengthily about it.  I'm frustrated with my baby who won't nap.  My three-year-old is driving me up the wall with the distinctively shrill timbre of her frequent screaming.  And my husband just left his candy wrappers on the counter twelve inches away from the garbage can for the seventeenth time this week.

If I can't abolish the anger from my own heart, how can I expect the wider world to be loving and tolerant?  

It is perhaps the simplest commandment, and it's also the most difficult: Love one another.   Did you know it can even be difficult sometimes to love your own flesh and blood?  That they can bring you to the very edge of your patience and fray your very last nerve?

Love them anyway.  Love them extravagantly and fiercely.  And if they need to be loved more, love them more.   Love them when they're angry.  Love them when their actions are ugly.  

And pray for the grace to keep on loving. 

{It also helps to clean dirty faces and comb disheveled hair, because that makes the loving slightly easier.}

* * *

I have a vivid memory of an exchange I shared with my Dad when I was a kid, maybe five or six years old.  He was standing over the bathroom sink early one morning shaving, and I looked up and asked him "Dad, would you still love me the same amount if I had been born with Down syndrome?"

He thought for a moment before answering.  "No," he said.  I must have widened my eyes at that answer -- it wasn't what I expected.  As children tend to do, I had asked a question to which I thought I surely knew the answer.  

"No," he continued thoughtfully, "I'd probably love you more."


"Because the rest of the world might love you less."

I've thought about that exchange a lot over the years.  The wisdom there, and the glimpse I saw of his depth of feeling for those who were hurting, for anyone who might ever be treated as less valued.

Today I thought of his words again, in the wider context of every different, hurting, disabled, marginalized, victimized person in this wide country of ours.  

If some in the world are going to love them less, then we need to love them more.  

Black, disabled, Jewish, Native American, and all the others who are afraid, or hurting, or angry right now.

Grumpy children.  Babies who won't nap.  Toddlers who act out in every way imaginable.

Even the Klansmen.  Even the Neo-Nazis.  

Because the only thing I can think of or imagine that could draw a person away from hate has got to be love.  

In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare's Shylock delivers the eloquent lines:

"He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies – and what's his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge."

But then there was Jesus, who said, 
"You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..."
* * *

I wish that ignoring terrible, hateful behavior could be sufficient.  I wish it could be enough.  Because the truth is that love is hard work sometimes.  And meeting hate with love must be the hardest of work a person could do, I would think.  I don't pretend to know -- after all, I'm a middle-class white American woman.  But I can imagine that if I find it hard even to love my own tyrannical toddlers in moments, well, there are other kinds of loving that are much, much harder.  

But ignoring bad behavior doesn't work.  It doesn't work with toddlers, and it doesn't work with teens, and it won't work with angry, hateful, racist groups of people.  We have to meet it with love.  


Easy for me to say, I know.  

I keep trying to think of a way that I can help, of some small thing I could do.  I haven't thought of much yet.

But in the meantime, I'll be here, trying to love my children.  Seeing them, hearing them, kissing their owies, empathizing with them.  Guiding them through the dark tunnels of big feelings and out to the light awaiting on the other side.  Because there is light.  The light shines in the darkness.   And the darkness has not, and will not, overcome it.

1 comment: