Soul Searching

Listen and learn

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He’s 7, a second-grader with a smile that could make you believe in infinite possibility. He loves to ride his bike fast and fish in the bay near his house and play endless games on his father’s iPad. He’s funny and rowdy and boisterous in the time-honored way of little boys, except when he slows down to think about things. Sometimes he shares these thoughts with visiting grandparents, opening a small window into the still pristine territory of his soul. We tread lightly at these moments, hardly breathing lest we stem the flow of words, listening to the tone and the way his voice rises and falls, listening for the question and praying for the right answer.

Eight days after Newtown, he told us that it would actually be a good thing to go to heaven. He had not been told of the event. His mother maintained that the terrible knowledge would not make him safer, and she is right. It was not discussed at his school. At home, the TV set was off. But as we drove through the winter twilight, he told us that heaven was a good option. Going there, he said, was better than being blown away.

He did not elaborate. We did not probe. We agreed on the various aspects of celestial bliss: no illness. No hunger. No mean people. No sad days. We waited to see if he had more to say. He did not. We moved on to the Patriots, bowling, and favorite movies.

Last summer, he told us casually about a classroom drill during which the teacher locked the door and the children gathered behind her desk. In case there’s a bad guy, he said. We nodded mutely, trying to process the idea of an attack on a room full of small children. Horrific, I thought. But better to be prepared. In my 1950s second-grade classroom, we learned to duck and cover, diving under our desks when the siren sounded. It was nuclear war we were drilling for then, and I can’t remember much in the way of adult explanation. Something about the Russians, who were far away and had bombs which they might or might not use. As for the drill, there was no ambiguity. Stop talking, Stay absolutely still. Follow directions.

And perhaps that was for the best. What 7-year-old could make sense of nuclear armament and the Cold War?

In the days following Sandy Hook, the cable news child psychologists were out in force. I found myself shaking my head a lot, struck by how little they had to say. I was reminded of a story told by Corrie Ten Boom, a heroine of the Dutch Resistance. She wrote of how, as a little girl, she asked her father the meaning of an ugly word she had heard in the street. He did not answer, but rather asked her to pick up his suitcase and carry it for him. When she protested that it was too heavy, he nodded. I would be a poor father if I asked a little girl to carry such a load, he said. In the same way, there is some knowledge that is too heavy for you now. You must let me carry it for you until you are older and stronger.

We cannot shield our children from every evil, not with guns, not with guards, not even with the armor of moral certainty. But we can be the bulwark they lean against. We can be their quiet center, their safe home. We can listen to the rising and falling of their voices, listen with our whole attention, listen to the wisdom of innocence. We can wait until they finish, and let there be silence. And then, shifting the burden to our own shoulders, we can be instruments of peace.

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