Yesterday I was at a park with Stella and my son Cary, who is five years old. There was another boy there, perhaps a year younger than Cary, who wanted to make friends. He was there with his grandparents. His grandmother had been following him around, hovering over him, issuing him warnings and instructions on how to play. The grandfather was with his little sister. He yelled at her when she slipped off the swing herself instead of waiting for him to lift her off. She was two.
Cary is outgoing and charismatic. Soon the boy was running all over the playground with him, free now of the grandmother, who couldn’t keep up. They played for about half an hour, now rough-and-tumble, now holding hands. Sometimes the sister joined in, in a group hug. Abruptly, the grandparents decided it was time to leave. The boy was disappointed. “You can play with him again next time,” they lied.
Exuberant and mischievous, the boy held the lever shut on the gate exiting the playground. He so wanted to stay! His grandma couldn’t pry his fingers loose. As the grandfather stepped forward menacingly, I coaxed the gate up and the boy started running around the parking lot, irrepressible. The next instant he tripped and sprawled hard onto the pavement, his forearms breaking his fall. “Good!” The word exploded from the grandfather’s mouth. Quickly they hustled the sobbing boy and bewildered girl into the car and drove off.
This incident cast a shadow over my heart, trifling though it may seem compared to Reaper drones blowing up school buses, paramilitaries torturing indigenous environmentalists, and the genocide unfolding right now in Cameroon.
The events in Yemen, Guatemala, and Cameroon are in some sense theoretical, impacting me mostly via stories. I have not witnessed those events. Instead, I am shown a little boy, hurt and shamed by the people he is biologically inclined to trust the most. Through him, I can feel a whole world of hurt because all of these phenomena are part of each other. Alienated, traumatized, damaged little boys grow up to be the kind of men who launch drone campaigns and genocide. A world where small children experience a violation of their sovereignty is inevitably a world where the rainforests, whales, soil, and water suffer a similar violation.
I saw that boy, his tenderness and openness, his perplexity at the seemingly random violence from those he loves, his valiant attempt to understand why he is not trusted and why playtime is so short. So small he was, doing his best to make sense of a wrongness far beyond his ken. I peered into his future of classrooms and doctor’s offices, ADHD prescriptions and anxiety meds, addiction, and self-blame. What will he become when his dismay and perplexity turns to depression? When his depression turns to rage? When his rage turns to entitlement?
Maybe someday he will become a perpetrator in his own right. Maybe he will be like Brett Kavanaugh, a drunken frat boy shoving his penis in women’s faces.
Hold on a second.
Did you notice the dehumanizing slur, “frat boy”? It is socially acceptable to dehumanize the bad guys, isn’t it. Because you and I are on Team Good, fighting Team Evil. Humanize them, and you render aid and comfort to the enemy. We must screen out any redeeming qualities or exculpatory history so that we can arouse maximum contempt for those we must conquer to achieve a better world. Such is the mentality of war.
To humanize the enemy truly does hamper the war effort. If we hope to solve climate change by inciting hatred for the greedy, lying, climate-denying assholes in the fossil fuel companies, then it does not help to point out that in their world, they are the good guys, operating in a corporate culture and political subculture that validate what they are doing. It does not help to point out that the economy and industrial system they serve is addicted to fossil fuels. Nor does it aid the war effort to observe the imperative for endless growth in consumption in a money system based on interest-bearing debt. Besides, these conditions admit no easy solution. Better stick with fighting the bad guys.
Better stick to shaming the frat boys. Better stick to calling out the bigots and misogynists. Better stick to locking up the criminals. Better stick to building walls to keep out the immigrants. Better stick with controlling the behavior. Better stick with punishing that little boy.
I wanted to help him. I wanted to tell the grandma, “By hovering over him all the time, you communicate to him, ‘You are not trustworthy.’” I wanted to tell the grandpa, “By dominating and punishing him, you are teaching him to dominate and punish.” Certainly, the boy’s pain evoked a deep pain in myself, from which I wanted to dominate and punish the grandpa, to shame him, to make him feel as bad as the boy did, as bad as I did.
That deep-rutted habit of solving a problem by fighting rarely serves its intended purpose. It might have felt gratifying to tell them off, thinking that I was “defending” the boy, but what would have happened when they got home? Would I have changed any of the conditions behind the grandparents’ actions? What pain were they acting from, exacerbated perhaps by the fear we were judging them for not controlling the children, and the mute discomfort of interacting with strangers in a public place. They were hurting people.
What were they feeling and thinking, and what hurt? Those questions are the genesis of creative response beyond confrontation. In the absence of understanding, fighting or inaction are the only choices. If you can win, fight. If you can’t, retreat. But then, the strong and the violent rule the world.
I didn’t have the presence to ask those questions. It all happened too fast. I replay the scene. What could have I said or done had I been more present?
Well, I did nothing. I can only hold him in my heart and wish a miracle for him. I know I will have more chances to help him – help him by proxy. You can help too, any time you are in a difficult scene with a child. By upholding the sovereignty of one child we further the sovereignty of all children and all beings.
I would like to invite you to join me in a prayer for that boy. Properly understood, a prayer is not a request for supernatural intercession in the affairs of the world. A true prayer is a declaration of willingness. When we pray for someone’s health, what God hears is, “I am willing to respond to an opportunity to serve that person’s health.” When we pray for the health of the Amazon, what God hears is, “I am willing to respond to opportunities to serve the health of the Amazon.” The opportunity will show itself, whether directly or by proxy. You probably won’t meet that boy, but there will be a child, maybe your child. Because of your prayer, you will remember not to shame her, not to shout at her, not to punish her, not to speak fake words to her, not to manipulate her with conditional approval. Maybe you will remember patience. Maybe you will drop the judgments upwelling from your own pain. Maybe you will inquire, what is it like to be here in this moment? Acting from this place, you alter the morphogenetic field of the world and help the little boy and all traumatized beings. You will have done what is yours to do.
The boy can’t know you’ve done it, but in some mysterious way, he will know – in a time outside of time he will look at you with grateful eyes.