This is part 3 of a 3 part series. For parts 1 and 2 see the previous two blog posts. If you'd like a copy of the bog in its entirety, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Answer children’s (and other vulnerable populations) questions & honor their experience and needs.
Children and vulnerable people groups are particularly acquainted with the dynamics of power differentials and bullying. They have well developed truth and sincerity meters and, on certain points of the developmental continuum, are literal in their thinking. Whether you acknowledge it or not, children are watching, listening, learning, and internalizing the behaviors they see enacted by the grown people in their lives. They overhear our conversations and our off handed comments. They are privy to our most candid and unfiltered selves. They grow within the greenhouse of our bias and beliefs and encounter those of their peers’ parents on the playground, at rehearsal, church, and class.
When a person in a position of authority is repeatedly given free passes by other grown people to bully, ridicule, and treat others in inhumane ways, children notice. Some children will be empowered to act in similarly empowered hurtful manners, feeling certain that this previously disallowed behavior is now approved. Others will be confused and still others will be frightened. They take what they see literally and fear that the vitriol they see enacted in the media might, at any point, turn toward them. They have reason to fear this.
What we grown people DO speaks much louder than what we SAY. This means that we need to live with thorough intentionality and care. If we say that a person’s behavior is inappropriate but act in ways that support that person with no requirement of accountability, a child is learning from our unconscious modeling. For this reason and many more, those of us who interact with children need to tend to the first three points in this essay heartily. Children need us to be clear about our blind spots, honest about our bias’, and active about trying to do good in the world. They need us to be truth tellers with our words AND our actions and when we simply cannot be, they need us to be honest that our inconsistencies don’t make any sense. To be told one thing, and shown another is crazy making. Children need to see us cry AND laugh. They need to know that strong feelings are manageable and that they are safe when they come up against their own or ours.
Children need a range of safe adults to talk and walk with and they need to be invited to talk. By simply inviting the questions (e.g: “Hey loves, please ask every question that comes into your mind. There is no question that is un-askable.”) we tell our children that their fears are welcome and that we are available to help them cope with them. In addition, children learn, from their primary communities (families, churches, schools, classes, neighborhoods) whether differences are good and manageable or bad and to be avoided. The world will offer them opportunities to perpetuate these learnings time and time again. It seems to me that giving them the opportunity to experience relationships with grown people who are grounded, confident, and empathic enough to tolerate differences rather than be threatened by them can do nothing but make the world a better place. Children also need us to help them understand that there will always be people who will have different ideas and values than them and that learning to live with these people rather than tearing them down is the healthier path. To this end, helping children develop critical thinking and conflict management skills and then providing opportunities for application and practice is more important than ever.
When interacting with children, adults often passively disrespect the intensity of children’s feelings and lived experiences. In order to help children (and anyone, really) through swirling “bathtub” moments we must first be willing to be attached to them. We must listen as much as we talk, and truly “be with” as much as we “live along side of.” We must come toward a child’s questions or actions or emotions from a place of willingness to engage, speak their language, and answer them honestly. One of the primary reasons for my utter love for Mr. Rogers is his embodiment of deep respect for the experience of each individual child (and person). He took things seriously and did not shy away from difficult topics simply because his audience was young. We need to be these kind of adults in the lives of our children and vulnerable communities. We must be honest and humble, owning our own stuff and making space for the real stuff of the child and their world. For one of the most potent examples of this I offer this clip of Mr. Rogers addressing children and their parents the night after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.
Speak (radical/ruthless) l(L)ove to narcissism.
Part of the universal appeal of Mr. Rogers is that he seems capable of doing that which we all wish we could do: Advocate for the immense worthiness of each individual without putting any other individual down. In so doing he has engaged in what Quaker Civil Right’s activist Walter Wink refers to as “the struggle to overcome domination without creating new forms of domination.” He sees people, values them, and loves them with power attempting to match to the hate they have been served.
The kind of love I am referring to here is one that is far from shallow or permissive. It is love that involves struggle (as the most intimate love does) to make space for those it seems impossible to love. It means being committed to love even when hate is the easiest alternative. It is neither coddling nor co-dependent. It isn’t whimpy. Speaking Love to narcissism means doing no harm but taking no shit (a line stolen from my favorite magnet). It means I work to harness the power of my strong reactions in order to use the resulting energy proactively. It means I cannot use the very methods I abhor in my enemy but, rather, must find a way of counteracting the powers of self interest and hatred. It means I must work to keep my attention on what I can do to change the reality of those who hurt rather than squandering it on those who simply seek the intensity of my reaction.
Psychologically, narcissism is born out of insecurity and emptiness. From a core that feels unlovable, unacceptable, or less-than the individual who functions from a narcissistic perspective looks outside of them self to find affirmation, confirmation, and security. The narcissistic self needs others to praise it It needs intensity of response to it. The narcissistic self needs us to respond largely to it. Positivity or negativity is irrelevant…intensity is all. Where a more grounded self might say “I hope that my presence adds positivity” the narcissistic one might say “I hope my presence makes an impact.”
In my own experience I have come to believe that the best response to narcissism is one of radical compassion toward the heart of the individual acting in narcissistic ways and radical disinterest in response to their efforts to win the intensity of my attention. If this is an option, one way we might move forward would be to engage in efforts to redirect our attention away from the provoking attacks and attention seeking behaviors all around us and toward pro-active, hope driven, tangible actions that confront hatred with the kind of Love that can’t not change things.
Where do we go from here?
Late at night on the 3rd of July I was flossing my teeth. Half way round the top I tasted something funny and heard a “ping” in the sink below me. It took less than a second for me to realize that my front cap was rounding the bowl of the sink, inching it’s way down to the hole at its bottom. The panic I felt as I realized that I’d have no front tooth if the cap went down the drain was real as, in seeming slow motion, I remembered that the next day was a holiday (the dentist’s office would be closed) and the day after that I was leaving for Ireland. Panic upon panic fueled my focus as I calmly covered the drain and captured the tooth.
I think that many of us, regardless of our political leanings, feel a weird sense of slowed down/sped up panic and fear in the face of the vacuous unknowns that are pulling at us this week. We also know that we will be required to manage these feelings (and help those around us manage those feelings…especially the children and vulnerable amongst us) into the months and years ahead. In the coming days I am choosing to use some of my focused energy to encourage an active attack on narcissism along with a corresponding attempt to inspire empathic empowerment. I cannot single handedly turn the tide nor remove the fear of the drain altogether but I can function from a calm center, taking responsibility for my bias, privilege, and feelings, working to change the systems of domination one small and focused action at a time.
I’d love if you’d join me in this pursuit. Each day for the next several weeks I’ll be posting a ten minute “speak (radical/ruthless) Love to narcissism” activity. These will be self contained experiences, each lasting approximately 10 minutes. I’ll be posting a link to sign up for daily emails tomorrow, otherwise, check Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram beginning Thursday to take part in this experience.