raising children in a complicated world

A few weeks ago, S became obsessed with the alphabet. A set of foam bath letters and an ABC puzzle became the Toys Of The Moment.

F and I now spend a good part of each day watching S pick up letter after letter and declare (or ask) its identification. We’ve been amazed at how quickly he learned and now names letters in books, on posters around the house, on billboards as we drive.

I love to read. So of course I delight in the world of letters – and then words, and then books – that is opening up for S. I can’t wait the day when he will sound out his first word from the letters on the page: the triumph of recognition, the lightbulb moment of learning.

But yesterday morning reminded me that every discovery, every glorious step towards greater understanding, has a shadow side. I came down to the breakfast table and was greeted with the largest headline I’ve ever seen on a front page:

BIN LADEN IS DEAD.

Screamed out in four-inch tall, bold black capital letters.

I sat and I read. I thought about what this news meant. I felt a surge of conflicted emotions.

And the question hit me. How would I explain this news to S? 

My immediate response: Thank God, he’s way too young. So of course I don’t have to tell him.

Then a more nuanced response: That’s kind of a cop-out, L. You still need to think about what you would say. Because the world is always full of hard news and scary men and evil that is tough to explain. So if he were 6, or 8, or 10, what would you say? How would you explain this?

I thought about this question all day long. Because what troubled me more than the screaming headline was the giant photo of a jubilant crowd outside the White House, waving flags and pumping fists for U-S-A. I understood their desire to celebrate a victory over terrorism, their satisfaction at justice (or revenge) ten years overdue. But the sinking pit in my stomach would not go away. They were rejoicing at a man’s death.

Of all the things I struggled to imagine explaining to S about this turns of events, the celebration over bin Laden’s death was the hardest. Every time I tried to picture what I would say about that photo, I could only think how it contradicted core values I want to pass on to him. That we are a pro-life people. That life is sacred, no matter what or where or how. That we are called to be peacemakers.

I chewed on this dilemma for most of the day, and it put me in a sour mood. The world had, as ever, proven itself to be messy and broken and smeared with evil. My theologian’s mind knew this to be obvious, but my mother’s heart protested that it wasn’t fair. And I didn’t know how to start making sense of my reaction to the news of this death, which seemed to be so far from the response of the media and (judging from my ill-advised decision to check Fa.ce.bo.ok) many of the people I knew.

Until I came across this simple statement:

Osama bin Laden, as we all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions for this purpose.

In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.

Vatican statement on May 2, 2011

And in that simple last sentence, I found the hope I needed that I would be able to talk to a child about what had happened.

That aside from all the complicated consequences – positive and negative – of what this event meant, we as people who try to follow the forgiveness and compassion and peacemaking of Jesus Christ never rejoice at the death of another. Because life is of God. And all life is sacred.

I do not look forward to the conversations I will inevitably have with my children about evil. And war. And violence. And hatred.

Yet the world in which they are growing and I am parenting is a world that thrusts such conversations upon our breakfast plates and dinner tables. We cannot avoid them. We cannot pretty them away. As soon as we learn our ABCs and begin to read the words that whirl around us, we start to learn that the world is a complicated place.

But if we as parents can trust in the faith and the values upon which we try to build the very life of our family, then I think we can have the difficult conversations in the light of hope. We can help each other remember who and what we are called to be in the midst of a complicated world.

At least that is my prayer today. For the challenging moments of parenting that lie ahead, of truth-telling, of helping my children to negotiate life’s messiness. The moments that lie ahead, but still trouble my heart today.

2 thoughts on “raising children in a complicated world

  1. it is such a complicated issue, and one in which i happen to share your sentiments about. i would like to state though, that the people in front of the WH celebrating, were drunk college students. there were beer cans littering the sidewalks and paths all around the WH. That is not said to excuse or undermine their stance, but at least (the very least) to frame the situation with the knowledge that these were 18-22 year olds for the most part and were not engaging in very high critical thinking skills.

  2. This news led to such interesting discussions in both the classes I teach and the Bible Study I lead at the church. I was happy to find out that most people’s reactions were much more nuanced than the 72 point headlines. One student asked “Why do we dignify his death (by following Muslim practice) when those whose life he helped end received no such dignity?” Another said, “Because we’re no better than him if we don’t.” Another said, “Should we pray for his soul? Or a part of him that’s good?” In Bible Study, our discussion was focused more on what the biblical witness has to offer us about how to respond in these situations…..unfortunately, it’s a hot mess in there, in some places saying we should never celebrate another’s death and in others rejoicing in babies’ heads bashed on rocks. Yikes! I wonder if teaching children to deal with the messy world takes the same wisdom as teaching children how to read the bible, the wisdom that says we didn’t always get it right. And we certainly sometimes thought God’s will was in places where it clearly wasn’t. But taking the whole arc of our faith is into account should lead us to air on the side of compassion, and justice, and life and peace. Thankfully, that front page isn’t the only thing S will know about the world…his awareness will be joined by so many other things that can help him to understand how to live in it.

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