Monday, February 15, 2010

Everyone a Child



It rises like a small mountain just outside the city. Every kind of garbage is piled here. From rotten food scraps to metal bins filled with chemicals. Broken furniture and rusted hunks of old cars, all covered in dirt and sand, along with the carrion eaters who squawk and circle above it like a dead carcass. The fetid stench is made worse by the blistering heat and extends miles past the villages. On any given day however, the hill will be covered with something else: children. Phnom Penh's municipal rubbish dump outside of Cambodia is home to hundreds of families who live on and around the 100-acre site, making their meager living from the materials they collect on the steaming rubbish heap. The children swarm across the broken, fragmented piles in their bare feet. Some carry tin pails, their tiny fingers dirty and weathered as they dig, hoping to provide food for their families. If the children are able to collect enough pieces of metal, glass and plastic, they'll be able to sell them for about ten dollars a month in the city. A kilogram of plastic or a kilogram of iron and glass will get ten cents. But these slim pickings are all these families have. Many of them arrived in Phnom Penh from the rural provinces in the hope of finding better work, only to discover their only option was to join those foraging for rubbish. Most of the children will spend twelve hours on the hill before they come home, and their childhood will be defined by their time there. A few of them are playing tag, mindless of the toxic waste and shattered edges despite their naked limbs. They are, after all, just kids.


***

"He's just a kid. What do you expect?"
The woman wore a wide white hat and a fitted mauve sweater. A wide, studded belt and tight, expensive looking jeans, along with knee high black leather boots. The perfume was strong and sweet, and just standing in front of her felt like I was taking a wet shower. It was the beginning of April, and I'd stopped at the playground on my way home to visit with some of the kids.

"Well, he was running around and bothering the other kids." I said. "He's picking on them, and I thought you'd want to know."

The woman snorted as she watched her boy run to the swings.

"He's only nine. Besides, who died and made you principal of the playground."

"I work at this school, ma'am. I work with some of those kids."


"Yes, well, school's over isn't it?" She said, lifting her nose, which I was sure had seen the edge of a scalpel.


I nodded and went over to say goodbye to some of my students. I told them to stay away from the young bully, and watched the woman's son as he clambered up the spider-set alone. With a sigh, I headed for my car. I felt sorry for the boy, because I knew what would happen as he got older. If he didn't figure it out on his own, he'd be spending a lot of his life wondering why he had no friends. I glanced back at the mother, who was standing with one hand on her hips while the other held a cigarette loosely between her fingers. When I grow up I want to be a cliché. I sighed and headed out. The mother was right about one thing, they were just kids. There was always a chance that her boy would grow out his bullying, and that he would change when he was older. Everybody had to grow up sometime, didn't they?


***

A lot of my friends have children now, and whenever I go visit I'm always amazed at the changes. By their size. Their language skills. The way they see the world. Often it feels like they are completely different humans. That it's expected makes it no less revelatory. Their brains and bodies grow as they mature. Slowly they learn to deal with abstract concepts and the psychological complexities of life. As adults and parents, we often talk often about the changes that occur in a child's life over a decade, from grade four to high school graduation. Unfortunately, one of the most prevalent and persistent myths in our society is that following childhood, once we have reached a certain age, we will act in a certain manner befitting our supposed physical and psychological maturity. We even give it a name (Adulthood). Most civilizations have done this for the purposes of law and government, and in ancient times, for breeding and marriage. It is practical and, to most observers, makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, while we may have reached an age where we can understand abstract concepts and produce children, there is no evidence to suggest that we have 'grown up.' In fact, most of the evidence points to the contrary. Studies indicate that not only do we continue to mature physically, but that we will continue to develop psychologically and emotionally, continually encoding our brain with new experiences and new information. At no time in our life are we anything like we were ten years ago, and the changes are just as radical, if not always as easily spotted.

Don't believe me? In the next ten years you will most likely vote for a different political party. Most of us will be involved in a different romantic relationship, will have moved at least once, will work at a different job or career, will have said good bye to old friends and made new ones, will have different opinions on sensitive subjects such as sex or money or religion, will worship at a new/different church or no longer worship at all, will have made or lost a substantial amount of money, and will have completely different ideas on how the world works and what it all means. And for those of us who do not experience any of those things, so the paradox goes, we will be considered to not only have a boring life, but to have not lived at all.

***

I couldn't live without her. I looked around my empty living room and stared back down at the pages in front of me. I'd started journaling the year before to try and help me figure things out, but the words meant to give me comfort gave me no relief at all. All I felt was the aching loneliness. The house was quiet, except for the hum of the wood stove and the calls of the loons from across the lake. I moved to the window, where I could watch the warm breeze rustle the water gently against the dock. It was my last semester in school, and the cottage I was renting had proved to be something of a find. Only twenty minutes from campus, it was isolated and quiet, a perfect place to study, and a perfect place for misery. Especially if the girl you loved, your first love, had just ripped your heart open with the rusty blade of an email.

She'd come back, though. She had to come back. I'd prayed for it, and God had answered. I was sure of it. I'd even written it down in my journal, so it had to be true. God was in the business of healing. I was a believer, believed all the stuff I'd been told to believe and even more than I'd been taught. I was fervent and passionate and knew without question that so long as I prayed and had the faith of a mustard seed, (a really, really small seed that grew into a huge plant) God would hear me. In fact, I'd even told my professors that I had the faith to move mountains. I hadn't done it yet, but I would. For now, I'd settle for my girl and getting things back to the way they were supposed to be. Yup. I was going to get it all back. I'd prayed and God had told me.


I took a deep breath and headed back to the couch. Despite my prayers, prayers made righteous and true by my faith, a little voice whispered that the break up had nothing to do with faith, but something else entirely.


"Bah! Everything is about faith!" I said, my voice loud in the empty house. "I just have to keep praying."


That week I went to the school bookstore and checked out a tiny book by Gary Smalley, If Only He Knew. One of my older (and wiser) married friends had recommended it. I started reading it in the bookstore and couldn't put it down. I paid for it and immediately headed to the library. Maybe it wasn't all about faith. For one thing, women were so different from men. It was like, they were totally different! Not only that, but everything they did was in direct response to what I did. I was the spiritual leader. I was supposed to set the example. I put down the book to think about what I'd read. I'd totally failed my girlfriend. It was a heart breaking read, but I forced myself to keep reading. When I came to a chapter that contained a list of 100 things men needed to be doing in their relationship, I pulled out my highlighter. It was time to get serious. I read through the list and marked every item that I hadn't done. It took a while, but at the end I counted them out, and I'd come up with a definitive checklist of fifty two things.


I headed to the computer room and sent my girl the longest email I'd ever written. I mentioned ever single one of the 52 items, with an explanation for each, and promised that in the future I would be the man. I would be the leader I was supposed to be so that she could be the woman God had made her to be. Smiling, I whispered a prayer of thanks and clicked Send. An email had torn me apart, and an email would redeem me. Hmmm. There was a sermon in there somewhere, I thought. Women were different, and I still had some stuff to learn, but Gary Smalley had helped me figure out the most important thing. Me being The Man allowed her to be The Woman.


For the next two weeks I fasted and prayed and waited eagerly for a return email or a phone call. It never came. The next month I finally got a short email from my girl. She'd been busy with her school but she was enjoying her classes. Her family was fine. She hoped all was well. How was I doing?


***

I stared at the question on the open window of my MSN Messenger but didn't type a response. The light filtered dimly from my lamp in the corner. A single, empty beer bottle balanced precariously on top of my computer tower. Everything else was quiet. I'd started chatting with Rose in one the Christian chat rooms, and she'd decided that her personal mission was to encourage me. I wasn't sure what to think, but at this point, it was nice to have someone to talk to, even if I didn't agree with her theology.

Jesus loves you, Steve.

I bent to the keyboard and finally typed my response.

I'm pretty sure God doesn't know I exist. Which is okay. The feeling is mutual. How are you doing?

Don't change the subject, Steve. I know things aren't good right now, but it will get better, I promise.

All I need to do is pray, right? …Sorry. Crappy day.

I know. I'm sorry it wasn't better.

Any luck with the doctor? I asked.

This time it was her turn to take a while to respond.

No. Maybe I'm not supposed to have children. God knows how much I want to be a mother, but maybe I just have to wait a little longer.

Rose lived in southern Alabama. She and her husband had been married for ten years, and trying to have kids for the past three. It didn't look good. Which was totally stupid, of course. I'd been a youth worker for the past eight years, and most of the kids I dealt with, like the ones at the group home where I was currently employed, came mostly from homes where they were unwanted. God is stupid, I thought. I didn't type it though, because Rose deserved better than that.

That sucks, Rose.

Will you pray for me?

I wanted to tell her that prayer was about as effective as throwing water on a grease fire to put it out, but that somehow seemed cruel.

Okay.

Thank you. Hey, I have to go. My husband says hello. We're praying for you.

Thanks, Rose. TTYL.

I stretched and moved from the computer to turn on the TV. Another night in paradise. I still wasn't sure how my marriage had fallen apart so quickly. What really pissed me off was that a couple who so desperately wanted kids couldn't have them. I dealt with jerk offs every day who seemed to have them at will and then treated them like crap. God is stupid, I thought. This whole world is stupid. I picked up the remote and switched over to the late game.

***

It wasn't like watching a bad TV show, I thought, you couldn't just change the channel. Dan had finished telling me what had happened, and he looked a bit lost as he sipped his coffee. I hadn't understood it when I was his age either. Back then, everyone was always promising change, and it was always easy. Buy this book. Come to this church. Take this course. Be better in ten weeks or ten steps or ten minutes. As young adult, the coolest feeling was this idea of possibility, you know. Like anything was possible. We just had to get things right, which wasn't a problem because there were a million shows and books and people spouting off about how easy things were. Fix your marriage. Fix your finances. Fix your kids. Fix your health. Even Oprah had gone from dramatic shows about fighting and stuff and become this self-help guru. There was definitely money in the "fix-it" world.

"It's going to take some time, pal." I said. "Diane probably won't come back. I'm not sure that she should."

"What does she want, Steve? I don't get it."

"Well, what do you want. She probably wants the same thing."

He scratched the mass of curls on his head.

"She's a girl. It's totally different."

"No it ain't." I said. "Listen, as long as you think girls are different, you're going to have problems. I've learned THAT much. You treat her like she's your possession."

He shook his head as if I was speaking Latin or telling him two plus two was sixteen. I understood though. I'd done the same thing when I was twenty-one.

"I thought we were friends, Steve."

"We are. Doesn't mean you gotta act like an idiot." I paused. "Look, I was an idiot when I was younger, and now that I'm old, I'm still an idiot. But what I do know is that the choices you make now are gonna affect you down the road. A lot of people never figure this out. Stuff happens and they get upset but then keep doing the same thing. Most of the time it's because they want their life to change, like, right away. And when nothing happens right away, they give up. And then they complain about their life when they're old like me. And you know, we're all like that in some ways. Ain't one person who's got it all figured out, just people who think they have."

We chatted for a while longer, and he told me he'd email later in the week. I told him I was there if he needed me. As a young adult, I'd always been kind of intimidated by older leaders because most of them were so sure about everything. That's why I made sure that Dan knew I didn't have all the answers. When I was nineteen, I'd just started going to church again. They told me I was saved. They told me that since I'd asked forgiveness God loved me forever and I had a mansion coming when I died. I was really liking the whole church thing, but I still couldn't figure out how all these people knew that they were right about God. All these adults singing and praying and talking about Jesus. Lots of talking. And all of it with that tone, you know, that teacher tone people use when they're reassuring one another that they're right. Anyway, I couldn't figure out how they could be so sure about everything, so I asked my pastor. He told me that he knew it in his knower. I said, you know that you're right about God in your knower? And he said, yes, that when we knew God we knew it in our knower. I asked him what happened if we didn't know it in our knower. He said that eventually I would. And that if I didn't know it in my knower that maybe I needed to spend more time at church so I would know it. Know God, I asked him. No, he said, know that I was right about God in my knower.

I kind of stopped asking questions after that. Especially since I didn't know it in my knower. In fact, the more I knew, the less sure I became. It wasn't that I didn't believe in God, although I wasn't even sure how that worked anymore, I just found it tough to give closed answers. You know what I'm talking about; those tiny statements that people say when they think they know stuff that doesn't allow you to answer. As I got older though, I realized that while these people thought they were sure about everything, there were gaping holes between their life and their beliefs. It made no sense. Worse, it was as if they couldn't see it. It was like that fairytale about the Emperor's Clothes, the one where he's naked but nobody will tell him that he's naked because he's the Emperor. I felt like I was walking around a bunch of people who were always telling me about their clothing and why their clothes were the best. Religious clothes. Science clothes. Relational clothes. Business clothes. Everyone was telling me what they were wearing, and they were all naked. I figured it didn't matter though, because pretty soon I'd be an adult and it wouldn't be like that anymore. The good thing about growing up was that people didn't look at you like you were a child.

***

There's a story in the Bible where Jesus says we're all supposed to be like children. That the only way to understand God is to be like a kid. The Bible has a lot of good stories, but I'd always thought that this one was kind of dumb. I'm not saying that Jesus was wrong or whatever, but he clearly never spent time as a youth worker. Adults and kids are really different.

I worked at an elementary school for a while, and most days I had to chaperone outside during recess. Kids were always running up to me, telling on their friends, saying silly stuff about stuff that didn't matter like the rules of these games they made up or why their snack was better. They'd call each other names and complain about this person or that person and why they were right and so and so was wrong. And that was just during recess. It was pretty annoying. I like kids, but by Fridays I was always tired.

That's why I think the idea about coming to God like a child is so ridiculous. As an adult, I'm much bigger, can drive a car, and can stay up as late as I want. It's totally different. I don't think Jesus knew what he was talking about. As I said, I'm not trying to be mean, but he was always hanging out with grown-ups. What would he know about kids?

***

It's uncomfortable being young. That's the biggest thing I remember about my childhood. I was never, truly comfortable, because there was always someone bigger than me who could tell me what was "really going on." And every time I learned something, I would learn something else that would make the earlier thing I learned not seem right anymore. The sad thing is that it's still happening. When I think back to what I knew five years ago, I realize that I didn't really know anything, I merely perceived that I knew things. Oh, some things haven't changed, but my perception of things has changed in almost every way. Especially my perception of knowledge. The more I've learned, the less I know, and yet somehow, it feels like I'm making progress.

Adulthood, it seems then, is an enlarging of our childhood. Enlarging in that it allows us to learn more, and as we do, to become more childlike through our knowledge. It is a form of becoming less by understanding more. The one who knows they are naked is infinitely more equipped to handle life than the one who believes they are fully dressed, aren't they? How else do we explain our actions? How else do we explain a world where two billion people would not go hungry if, for example, a country like the United States stopped wearing makeup for a year. Or a country like China had spent the money they put towards the Beijing Olympics towards their poor. How else do we explain a world where people steal from one another, betray one another, lie and cheat and browbeat and berate. A world where families abandon each other, offering excuses but no apologies.

We call people 'adults' when they reach a certain age. We give them rights and privileges, as befitting their new status. We give them expectations about what life is and what it should be. And yet, nothing changes, does it?

I don't know. Maybe Jesus is right. Maybe we not only need to approach God as if we're children, but in doing so, remember that everyone else is a child too. It's funny, but when a kid misbehaves, it's easy for me to forgive them. They're just kids, you know. It doesn't mean there aren't consequences, but it doesn't make me nearly as angry as when an "adult" screws up. I always think they should know better. But here's the thing: if you haven't experienced something, you're no different than a child, right? Not really. And what would happen if we all looked at each other as kids? As if we didn't have all the answers? As if we weren't supposed to know everything and it was okay? And what if we did approach God as a child? What if we trusted that He loved us and that he would help us to find our way? I'll be honest, I'm not sure it would work or whether or not it would matter. But then, I'm just a kid. I'm not sure about anything.

-Steve