Monday, July 26, 2010

The most important books in the world - 2 of 2

    It was a children's book about Japanese twins that endeared my mother to the Japanese people (and by extension, other cultures) so deeply that the propaganda of the second World War could not affect her.
     And it was a book about a little girl confronting a burglar that taught her to believe there is good in everyone. Joining the Society of Friends ("Quakers") as an adult was an outflow of having read a book by the author of The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett.
     The book was Editha's Burglar, based on a real seven-year old girl and published in 1888. Quakers believe in searching for and appealing to "that of God in everyone" ("the true Light which enlightens every man," Gospel of John, chapter 1, verse 9). That was a thread that ran through Mum's entire life, affecting the way she treated everyone from the young Japanese woman who replaced her as Dad's wife after their divorce to an anonymous man who knocked her down and stole her purse when she was 69.
    She got that way of seeing people from a children's book, long before she got it from the Bible.
     Like justice, pain is something children understand intuitively-- that is, they understand their own pain. I remember Ben coming to me to complain, "I have a headache, Mommy." He pointed to his forehead. "See?"
     What children have to be taught is that other people feel pain, too. One of the mistakes I think we make in this culture is making a game of other people's pain. We let our children poke us or hit us over and over and we laugh or say "Ow!" as if being hurt is fun. Then they poke once too hard and we get angry and the game's over. Confusing message to a child!
     Worse, we let them watch cartoons or movies in which other people's pain is supposed to make us laugh. Though I understand the bad guys deserve it and it empowers the kid, I've never really enjoyed Home Alone.
     Yes, there are people with bad intentions and we want those intentions thwarted. We want children to be safe. But Mum, like Editha, treated people redemptively, not vindictively. While Editha's father is out of town and her mother is sleeping, seven-year old Editha hears a burglar in the house. She goes downstairs and addresses him naively and without fear:
     "'Don't be frightened,' she said, in a soft voice. 'I don't want to hurt you; I came to ask a favor of you. . . . Mamma would be so frightened if you were to waken her, that I am sure it would make her ill. If you are going to burgle, would you please burgle as quietly as you can, so that you won't disturb her?'"
     The burglar, taken aback, laughs.
      "'You mustn't take any of mamma's things,' said Editha, 'because they are all in her room, and you would waken her, and besides she said it would break her heart; and don't take any of the things papa is fond of. I'll tell you what,' turning rather pale, 'you can take my things.'
     "'What kind of things?'
     "My locket, and the little watch papa gave me, and the necklace and bracelets my grandmamma left me, --they are worth a great deal of money, and they are very pretty, and I was to wear them when I grew to be a young lady, but--you can take them.'"
     She goes to get the things for him and talks to him as he helps himself to the silver and other valuables, asks him if he really wants to be a burglar and shakes his hand before he climbs out the window.
     When her parents find out the danger she was in, they blame themselves and vow to take better care of her. But Editha says, "He wasn't such a bad burglar, papa--and he told me he would rather be something more respectable."
     Six months later, after he is caught, the burglar voluntarily returns her things to her.
     Read early and often, that book had a profound effect on my mother. She maintained that attitude toward strangers and evildoers--seeing them as reachable through courtesy and love. I am convinced Mum would not have become the gentle, generous, courageous woman she did if Editha had rigged up a device to catapault the burglar headfirst through a wall.
     Remember Ashley Smith, the woman held hostage in her Atlanta apartment in 2005 by convicted rapist Brian Nichols? Ashley talked to him as to a fellow human being about the terrible consequences of drug use. She read to him from the Bible and in the end persuaded him to turn himself in.
     Do we want to teach our children to respond when wronged not by turning the other cheek but by causing other people pain? Don't we want them to see "bad people" as "potentially redeemable people," people Jesus loves? Don't we want them to learn courage, strength of character, and trust in God? How can we expect them to develop compassion for sinners if we have taught them to laugh at people getting concussions from falling cans of paint and being hit in the face with two-by-fours, as if other people don't feel pain?
     I'd rather teach my children to search out and appeal to that trace of God's image in everyone.

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