“Mom, does ISIS mean Islamic State in Iraq and Syria? Do Iraq and Iran fight a lot even though their names are so similar? Some of my friends said today that they were scared that because of their heritage and religion, they might be attacked. Or not liked.”
Such are the thoughts of many a child today. These came from Jack, a few days back, and I tried my best to answer his direct questions as well as those that emerged during our conversation.
As we talked, I felt such great responsibility. I saw how easy it would be to share too much, to inadvertently generalize, to gloss over his concerns, to assume he couldn’t understand or wouldn’t.
It seemed fitting that our electricity had gone out. That Oliver was fast asleep, Tom at work, the pets snoring. It was just Jack and me and a flashlight, snuggled and warm in his sweet little bed.
I am a big believer in sharing age-appropriate information about most any subject with my kids. I shield them from graphic footage and glaring headlines, but in what I hope are the right ways, I do keep them apprised of current events and facts about maturation because I don’t believe in cocooning them unrealistically. They’re getting to the ages at which if I don’t tell them, others will, and I’d like to have first pass at the narratives they hear and the subsequent senses they’ll make of the world.
It is full of so many treasures. Beauty beyond our imaginations. Riches beyond our dreams. Promise is everywhere. In the perennial flowers that never disappoint, that foil the destructive whims of even the harshest winters. Animals of the most decadent plumage, valleys, peaks and horizons that will render cynics breathless. History, invention, cures, heroes. Flight, childbirth, springtime, kindness. Jazz, great cities, flan, free long distance calls.
A yeasted loaf of bread rises once more after being punched down; a floury Phoenix of simple sustenance.
A baby stands and falls. Again and again and again. Until one day, he doesn't. He walks, and never looks back.
A whale breaches the icy depths: her unique fluke and elephantine corpus, weights defying gravity for an ephemeral snatch of time.
You see these things, and you are forever changed.
Amidst all this beauty is unfathomable struggle: heartbreak, death, loss, pain. A body fails, a loved one dies too soon. Depression strikes, a marriage just can't be made to work.
Whole ecosystems vanish before our greedy onslaught. A tiny, obscure type of insect goes extinct, rivers dry, trees are felled, habitat is lost.
It’s all too much sometimes.
But I do believe that ultimately, if we are willing to feel and share, we’ll see that we’re more alike than we are different. That there is connective magic in our world’s beauty and hardship, and that we can come to see each other as participants in that.
I believe that willingness begins with encouraging children to explore their emotions and inner lives, validating their questions, and answering them honestly. Only if a child feels confident in having a rich, fluctuating interior, will he or she become an adult willing to grapple with nuance and shades of gray. A person able to understand that just because the word Syria is in ISIS, not all Syrians are part of or remotely support ISIS ideology. That because ISIS espouses one interpretation of Islam, that rendering is not the only understanding available or supported.
Indeed, I believe that children who are taught from an early age to question staunch interpretations of anything, including themselves and others’ opinions of them, will be those most likely to believe and appreciate that our differences are exciting and help all of us grow into more empathic and worldly adults.
Caring for others, ESPECIALLY those we don't know or whom we don’t seem to resemble, is what makes our world a community. We mustn't lose sight of that. We mustn't be bystanders.
If you care for a child, then you should care for all children. If you care for fairness, then you should care for fairness dispensed in equal fashion regardless of color or language or creed.
When Americans comfort their own but then support the people -like HALF of our US governors, for example- who are refusing to allow refugees safe haven, they are acting with destructive, callous hypocrisy. Were not Marco Rubio’s and Bobby Jindal’s parents immigrants welcomed here? Were not some of our wealthy citizens once poor? Weren’t some of them first-generation college graduates who were offered support because they desired better?
Yes. And as Thanksgiving approaches, I hope to share with my kids a deep and abiding sense of gratitude. Which one can only truly feel if he is aware of what it means to suffer and struggle and want, desperately, for safety and more.
Give thanks and give back. Consider the world’s beauty and all who might not have access to it. How might you change that, in any way?