When Jessica was around 4 years old, she came bounding down the stairs, yelling excitedly,
“Mommy! Mommy! Guess what?!? You’ll never believe it!!!”
I looked up, already smiling, to see what I was about to never believe. Anyone who knows anything about 4-year-old little girls knows that everything is a drama, with the whole world their stage… complete with lots of exclamation points and hand motions. There aren’t many things in the world more adorable…
“Look, Mommy… THEY’RE TWINS!!!!!”
She landed at the bottom of the stairs, breathing hard, face flushed, with two small dolls clutched in her arms. They were cloth baby dolls, purchased at two different stores, and they were indeed identical: the same size, the same hairstyle, the same dress, the same tights, even the same sewn-on shoes. But there was a rather obvious difference, too. One had dark chocolate skin, while the other had off-white skin.
We had never discussed race with Jessica, and had been intentional about finding ways to describe people that didn’t involve skin color or any sort of disability. Instead of referring to someone as “the little black girl,” or “the boy in the wheelchair,” we would instead say, “The little girl who helped you with your backpack” or, “The little boy who always wins the reading contest.” We didn’t have a blueprint for how to do it, and to be honest we just kind of faked our way along, not sure if it would actually make any difference.
So when my ultra-observant daughter… the one who would come home after an evening out together and describe 50 different details of the restaurant, the people, the songs playing, the signs on the way home, most of which I’d failed to notice… when THAT child called those dolls twins, I was stunned.
I recovered as quick as I could, and said, “Uh… yes! They are twins! How crazy is that, when we bought them at two different places?”
Something in my initial hesitation caught her attention. (Remember I said she was ultra-observant?) She stared briefly at me, in that creepy “what are you hiding from me” look that all young children possess, and looked carefully back down at the dolls.
Then she said, “Wait a minute… there’s just ONE difference…”
I could’ve kicked myself. I knew what was coming. And I wasn’t the slightest bit prepared to discuss racial issues with a super-inquisitive 4-year old. But, like is always the case in parenting, you just keep on going, rarely able to prepare adequately for the moment.
“Look, Mom… there’s only ONE difference. This one has blonde hair, and this one has black hair…”
Then, proud that she’d figured out the difference, she ran back upstairs to play with her twins.
Recalling that story never fails to take my breath away. It reminds me of the beauty and clarity in the eyes of a child… and the cloudy, murky vision of us older and wiser adults.
Why do I glance at people and automatically place them into categories? Why do I define people by the color of skin, the cadence of voice, the body language, the facebook posts, the political stance, the clothing, the car, the smell, the size? And why are certain categories more important than others?
I tell myself, well, some things are more obvious than others. How am I supposed to know that a man wearing dirty jeans, driving a truck with a gun rack, with a pronounced Southern drawl is actually a millionaire? Let’s be real here… he looks like a good old boy driving to his modest home and family after a hard day’s work.
And yet… changing just a few details gives lie to my rationalization. Because if the man was dressed the same, driving the same old truck, but was black rather than white… my assumptions may be different. I may assume that he’s up to no good, or be less likely to assume he’s going home to his family. I might think the gun rack was for hunting people rather than deer.
It seems that we spend much of our time and brain power placing the world around us into categories. As we walk down the hallway, or through a crowded store, our brains register millions of images and thoughts.
Black. White. Pretty. Obnoxious. Fat. Latino. Handsome. Foreign. Polite. Disabled. Muslim. Arrogant. Happy. Ignorant. Short. Indian. Tall. Kind. Funny. Weird. Bright colors. Barefoot. Silly. Belly showing. Tattoos. Professional. Poor. Stressed. Loud. Helpful. Sick. Cute. Noisy.
We overhear conversations all around us, and with a nearly audible “click”, we place them into categories.
Liberal. Right-winger. Evangelical. Progressive. Tree-hugger. Rich. Poor. Gang-banger.
And then based on those categories, we make additional assumptions.
Lost. Ignorant. Flighty. Racist. Entitled. SOB. Rich. Backward. Irrelevant. Brainwashed. Worldly. Bigot. Lazy. Greedy.
All of this, it seems, can flash through our minds in an instant… so before we even open our mouths to have a conversation with someone we don’t know, we’ve already formed opinions and judgments about them. And they have already formed opinions about us. Sometimes they are correct… sometimes they aren’t… and how would we ever know? It’s already all muddled up by our assumption and presuppositions.
It was into just this kind of arena — political and religious tension, power plays, vicious ideological separation, and intense competition for hierarchy — that Jesus did something remarkable. Something crazy. Something that turned everything upside down. He brought a little child forward, and he said to the crowds,
“I tell you the truth, you must change and become like little children. Otherwise, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. The greatest person in the kingdom of heaven is the one who makes himself humble like this child.” (Matthew 18:3 NCV)
A part of me loves this passage with all my heart — it is an important reason I became a pediatrician, because it strikes a deep chord within me, resonating like the lowest string on a bass violin.
But another part of me is terrified by this passage. Because when I’m in conversation with other people, I’m far more interested in winning the argument than in making myself humble. I’m far more interested in honing in on their weaknesses, than exposing and admitting my own weaknesses. I’m far too busy clicking people into categories, following where that leads me, and then after the fact recalling the words I spoke… while having difficulty remembering anything the other person said. I’m far more interested in being at the top of the ranking system, than at the bottom.
Oh, to have the eyes and heart of a child. To learn not to see, in order to see more clearly. To become deaf, in order to hear. To become foolish, in order to be wise.
To look at the people around us, and be able to pronounce with utter certainty, “There’s just one difference. This one has blonde hair, and this one has black hair….”