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Answering Our Children With
Words That Heal Us All
by Celia Straus
The events of the past week have generated hundreds of heartbreaking requests for prayers from mothers and girls to my web site. Many parents accompany their requests with notes wondering what to tell children when they ask, "How could God let such evil occur?" Our answers are crucial to our own grieving (and eventually healing) process as well as to theirs. As we all know, it's challenging to address moral and spiritual issues (which often seem weighty and profound) with words our children can understand and relate to under the best of circumstances. During these tragic times most of us are overwhelmed, even immobilized, by our own feelings of confusion and despair, so that taking time to thoughtfully answer a child's questions about good and evil is even more difficult.
My daughters (ages 18 and 14) have both confronted me, saying "You write prayers for us and other teenagers. You believe in God and say to trust in His divine plan for us. How could this horror be part of that? If God is love and love exists in all living things, where is the love in the hearts of those who would kill thousands of innocent people?" They are confrontative because this time evil occurred in their country, in cities familiar to them, (we live in Washington, DC) on a scope unimaginable until now. They watched evil being televised as it happened and then they watched it again and again and again, and they feel vulnerable. Depressed. Angry. Betrayed.
They feel betrayed because they were promised by me that they could expect life to be mostly good, not always fair, but filled with unlimited opportunities. They were told by me that by following a few simple procedures such as not smoking, wearing your seat belt or bicycle helmet, eating "green light food" and not just potato chips, refusing to talk with or open the front door to strangers, life would be safe. As they got older, I made them aware of terrible events in the history of our planet that demonstrated evil on such a grand scale that it was and continues to be mind numbing, but I also said that these events were lessons they should learn from but wouldn't have to experience, not now, not here. And I was proven wrong.
Experts in parenting and spirituality, far more experienced than I, have given us invaluable advice in the past week about how best to assume the responsibility we have to answer our children's questions and help them cope during this time. They counsel listening, sharing, being open and honest, steady and gentle. They urge us to turn off the television and do something together as a family, ideally outdoors comforted by God's light in nature. They remind us that it's important to reach out to others, our families, our friends and our communities to give and receive comfort and compassion. They help us help our children find ways to support those who have been victimized whether it's a crayoned sympathy card by our four year old or a collection of booties to protect the paws of the search and rescue dogs by our fourteen year old.
I can only share the words I have said and continue to say to my daughters as well as to the mothers who have logged on to my web site. I tell them that God is always present within us and around us and is infinitely good and always loving. While God's love is all-powerful, we are always free to turn away from it. God does not control our actions. Tragically, our world is filled with people who have turned away from God's love; who are suffering and confused and ignorant; who live in darkness; and who are capable of mass destruction. For reasons we don't understand these people are cut off from themselves, their souls, and their humanity. All of us, at times, act from a place of fear instead of faith, or respond with anger instead of love. But the light of love remains always clear and bright within our hearts. For reasons we can't comprehend, these people are so filled with fear, anger and hate that love's light is extinguished to be replaced with evil.
Knowing that all my actions speak louder than words, I also turn to William Martin's The Parent's Tao Te Ching when he writes, "Parents facing hardship and sorrow must become like water. They must embrace the hardest things of life and enfold them with their heart. Death and loss are overcome with gentleness and serenity." And later, "We all want to protect our children from the sorrow and loss of life. We cannot. But the way we behave when faced with these things will give our children all they need to remain at peace." I also reread, Everyday Blessings, by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zin when they talk about how to come to an acceptance of the unacceptable. They say, "Perhaps the best we can do is feel the fleetingness of life and of our present moments, and live inside them, one at a time, as fully as possible, hugging our children and rejoicing in their life, and feel at the same time the certainty of death, of life arising and passing away." I would add, "and arising again" because the events of September 11th have been followed day after day by acts of courage and compassion and living. I ask my children to remember the myth of the phoenix rising from ashes, an almost literal telling of both our nation's and their own personal story of hope and faith in the God's love. For while there are those who are capable of evil, God can make good come from evil.
And then there's the Bible, where I find inspiration in Psalm 27:11 - 14: "Teach me Your way, O Lord, And lead me in a level path. Because of my foes, do not deliver me over to the desire of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and such as breathe out violence. I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living." It is not difficult to reinterpret and simplify these beautiful words so our children can take ownership of them, whatever their ages. We find examples of how we have seen goodness and love in this land of the living. We feel love together, experiencing it as we talk. And each time we replace an image of darkness with an image of light in our minds and in theirs, we answer their questions, we say words that, however ephemeral, bring comfort and balance for a moment. In the Awakened Heart Gerald G. May reminds us that, "When we say yes to love or try to say yes or even desire to try to say yes, love is as victorious in that moment as it is in all of cosmic time."
I also gently refer my girls and other mothers and daughters to three poems in More Prayers On My Pillow, one about grief:
"Let me put my whole weight down.
I must have faith in You,
My inner strength in gone from me,
Those burdens carried so effortlessly
Now break my heart in two.
Let me put my whole weight down.
No longer brave am I.
I cannot smile through all my tears
Or even soothe another's fears.
All I can do is cry.
Let me put my whole weight down.
For how else can I bear
The loss that's bleeding out my life
So every breath hurts like a knife,
My grief spreads everywhere.
Let me put my whole weight down.
Believing You will stay.
Inadequate, helpless, and weak
I cannot hear or see or speak
All I can do is pray."
And two about healing:
"When I'm so surrounded by darkness
I wake up in a tomb
When every image is of pain
And every word a wound.
When I can't listen to my songs
For fear I'll come undone
When my heart's frozen, hard as ice
And my soul's cut and run,
Please let me find just one small crack
In this eternal night
And open wide my house of fear
To let in Love's pure light."
"You live in my heart
You sing in my soul
You smile through my eyes
Your love makes me whole."
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