The Fifty-Ninth Letter: Am I Sheltering You?

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Dear Daughters,

Sometimes I worry that I am sheltering you too much.

Okay, actually, I worry about this a lot.

You really got bothered by the Ghost of Christmas Future in the Mickey Mouse version of A Christmas Carol this last Advent. The Mickey Mouse version. Your dad and I did not see that coming. But, of course, it’s about dying as well as greed, hostility, selfishness, and callousness, and you take those things to heart.

Because you are sensitive souls. Especially the eldest.

Sometimes I worry that you are sensitive because I am protecting you from Bad Things. Because you don’t know how the world “is.”

I look around at my community and it looks pretty homogeneous, and so even though we make an effort to buy books for you with diverse protagonists, and we even ask others to buy them for you, I still think sometimes, Am I sheltering you too much?

Yesterday, after we marched with our small town to remind others and ourselves that we stand for equality and that there is still work to be done, I talked to you about Martin Luther King, Jr.

I started out by talking out about how we are all children of God, created in the image of God. This you understood. This you embraced. Because this you know.

But then I told you that there are some people who don’t believe this, and that before I was born, there was a man named Martin Luther King Jr. who helped us to see how unfair it was to treat people differently because they looked different from us. He was a preacher and people listened to him. But not everyone was happy with what he was saying. People said bad things and did bad things.

As your eyes welled up with tears, I knew I was treading on dangerous ground. You cannot wrap your brain around someone being mistreated because she looks different than you do. You get sad when you see sadness. You cry when I cry, even if you don’t know why. I know this about you, and I saw it in your eyes, but it was important to me that you knew the truth of this story.

Still, I didn’t know how much truth to tell. When you asked if Dr. King was still alive, I told you he was not. You wanted to know what happened, and so I told you.

This was too much truth, and I could see it in your expression as you processed, in the change in your breathing. You got nervous.

I switched gears and talked about Old Testament prophets instead. And we talked about people in the Bible who died because others got upset when they preached truth, when they preached the message that God needed us to hear.

I kept circling around to the message that we are all children of God, how important it is to remember that we are all created in God’s image. This seemed like the thing to focus on. It’s also on my mind because of a Desmond Tutu book I’m reading.

But your little brain was still working, and despite your insistence that you were okay, those blue eyes were filled with tears.

That’s when I realized it. It is scary to you that people have died because they believe we are all children of God. It is scary because you believe we are all children of God. Because your dad and I believe we are all children of God.

I checked again to see if you were okay because you have this habit of trying to be brave. You say things like, “I’m fine, but my eyes are just watering,” when you are not fooling anyone. Your heart is so sensitive.

You asked to be excused from the table, and you went into your room to play.

A few minutes later, you began to sob. Loudly. You came out of your room, sobbing. Sobbing. Sobbing.

I sat down on the big gray chair in the living room to hold you, to offer comfort, knowing what it is like myself to be overwhelmed with emotion at the pain of the world. I asked you if you were afraid, and you told me, No.

“Just sad,” you said.

Just sad.

This morning, awake at 4 am with insomnia, I began to think again about whether you are too sheltered from the bad of the world.

The thing is, on a lighter note, it’s hard for me to get too worked up that you find Disney bad guys scary because you haven’t yet been made numb to the archvillain cartoon type. The fact that you haven’t been exposed to the bad guys means you also haven’t been overly exposed to the “good” guys, the princes saving the princesses, or the princesses themselves, which are to some degree just as dangerous, given the concerns they introduce regarding self-image, cultural biases, and understandings of what happily-ever-after love looks like. So I don’t care that you find caricatured scary dudes scary. The fact that you’re sheltered in your media exposure is fine with me.

But what about real life?

Well, I know that your dad and I have gotten a lot of things wrong in the last four years of “real life” parenting. I know that our faith calls us to love more, be more vulnerable, live less selfishly, speak truth more openly–and to teach you to do the same. We often fail at this. Over and over and over again, we fail. We are aware of these failings most days, and I hope we continue to challenge ourselves to live more faithfully to our callings.

But when it comes to sheltering you, to worrying about whether you’re exposed to enough “bad” things, well, I think I need to let this worry go.

For example, not many two- and four-year-olds have attended, in the last six months, their town’s first gay pride festival and picnic, witnessed their mother heading to the polls–twice, actually, given that the first time I went our precinct had run out of paper ballots–attended a Kentuckians for the Commonwealth fundraiser where we heard about state environmental and political concerns, and marched in an MLK day parade sponsored by our NAACP.

That’s real life, girls.

When you ask questions about people watering their lawns, we talk about water supply issues in Africa. (I’m not above a little indoctrination.) We talk with you about the great work your grandpa is doing with ex-convicts in Pennsylvania, and how he studies the Bible alongside inmates and visits those who don’t have friends or family members to visit them. When you talk about Christmas presents and Santa, we talk about the least fortunate. We make you sort your belongings and give things away on St. Nicholas Day. When we collect items for a Christmas Share-the-Joy family in our community, we talk about how there are very real people living in our neighborhoods who don’t have enough food to have a Christmas dinner, who don’t have fun things like brightly colored toothbrushes and yummy watermelon fluoride-free toothpaste. You walked with your preschool class to the food bank on Main Street and took a tour.

And the truth is, it’s not all words. You have been exposed to people who are different from us, but I work really hard, even when my heart isn’t in it, to not let you know that they are different from us.

We have friends and acquaintances with a variety of incomes, but we treat them all the same. We have shared our table with folks on fixed incomes and government assistance, who otherwise eat in soup kitchens, and we share our table with college professors. We try to treat them all the same. You have shared your goldfish and your sandbox with neighborhood children who don’t have milk in their homes to eat with their breakfast cereal, and you’ve shared your sandbox with children of dual-income earning parents. I try to teach you to treat them all the same.

When there are shady characters passing us on the street, and I have that stirring of fear so enculturated into me, that distrust of the stranger, it is important to me that you see me greet them with a friendly “Hello.” I refuse to teach you stranger danger, because I do not think that is the gospel message. (Many of my mom friends disagree with me on this. But we disagree on a lot of things. Like princess movies.)

All of that to say, when I read the Gospels, especially the words of Jesus, I know that we have miles to go before we are loving our neighbors as ourselves. I know that there is work to be done inside these four walls, and there is work to be done in our neighborhood, and there is work to be done in our city, our state, and our country. There is a lot of work to be done. I could be loving better, offering more hospitality, making more deliberate strides toward repairing the divisions I see in this world. We have not yet done enough.

Still, I do not think you are sensitive because you are sheltered, because you haven’t been exposed to enough bad things, because your world is curated and protective and safe. No, quite honestly, I think you are sensitive because I am sensitive. A lot of it is genetic.

But to the extent that it isn’t genetic, I want to affirm your sensitivities, your quickness to feel the pain of others, and not unwittingly numb it out of you by overexposure. I want to affirm your sensitive soul because it shows me you are on the road to compassion, journeying toward a heart breaking over the suffering of this world, toward an awareness that this world is not the way God intended it to be, toward a vocation to love.

And that is right where you should be.

Love,

Your Momma

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