Thursday, April 5, 2012

Of Bites and Men

My daughter was bitten today by another child at the public library. Before any of her grandparents read this and proceed to freak out, let me take the time to assure them now that she is perfectly fine and suffering no ill effects. She had some extremely nasty looking teeth prints on the fingers of her right hand for about five minutes, there is some broken skin, and she's on penicillin since the bites were bad enough to bring forth a little bit of blood; but she's recovering. Mommy's heart was racing like crazy when I first witnessed the virtual craters in her hands caused by the teeth, but when she started calming down, my heart eased.

To be truthful, though, it wasn't the hand-biting episode in itself that impacted me as much as the ironic timing of it. Let me explain...

Because I am a voracious reader of "the classics," I am always trying to get my paws on another classic book which I have not yet read. My most recent endeavor was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight -- although I still need to finish Part Four -- but since we were at the library anyway I was preemptively seeking my next literary treasure. I include, from time to time, a children's "classic" on my list, especially if said classic was written prior to 1920; these are often written in astonishingly eloquent prose, especially when one considers such a book was written for a child.

That said, today I had a few children's titles -- classics -- as potential options. One particular of these I picked up and proceeded to read just a tiny bit about the author on the back spine. It was said of her that "she believed in the natural innocence of children." It went on to say that she understood all children would "grow up to be decent, caring people when left to their own devices."

Children are a blessing, undeniably. If you have the special privilege of being a parent, you understand this truth in a radically special way. What a gift. And there is, with every child, what I would call "an innocence of wonder." Lilia is at a stage now where she exhibits more curiosity than even our cat (no mean feat). She also keeps Jerry and I in stitches every day. She's just a little bundle of cute, curious, hilarious, clumsy, wondering, awkward joy.

But she's a sinner, too. Just like me and Jerry. She has a selfish nature, and it didn't take us terribly long to see the evidence of it. It was about four months ago, when she started expanding on her extremely limited vocabulary, that it really came home to me. I would hear her awakening from naps, and as usual, she would be talking to herself. But there were suddenly two new words she was practicing with rabid frequency: "No" and "mine."

Funny, I don't recall us ever teaching her those words. I wonder where that came from.

I replaced the book upon the shelf, wondering, to be quite frank, how anyone with the slightest familiarity with children could be so naive. Twenty minutes later my daughter's hand was fodder for the molars and incisors of a quite adorable two-and-a-half-year-old girl with blonde, bouncing ringlets (an effective, if not primitive, method of procuring a toy).

Her father, utterly mortified, handled the situation glowingly. He felt, of course, though through no fault of his own, terribly guilty for the wounds inflicted upon Lilia by his pretty little girl. He apologized profusely, and he impressively dealt with his daughter through a combination of firmness and gentleness. She apologized to Lilia. Lilia learned what it can mean to forgive. It turned out to be (teeth marks and blood notwithstanding) a good lesson for both girls.

I couldn't help but wonder about what I had read on the spine of that book, especially the part about children inevitably becoming "decent, caring people" -- and here's the clencher! -- "when left to their own devices." I wonder what that pretty little girl with the blonde ringlets would have done if her father had "left her to her own devices." I have a hunch that the next time another child possessed the toy she wanted, her bicuspids would have made quick work of some portion of that child's anatomy. Thank goodness her father loves her enough to intervene.

It's noteworthy to add that there is a radical difference between becoming a "decent, caring person" and becoming a person who loves justice and righteousness. I'm not for a moment saying it's a bad thing for someone to be decent and caring. But let's be honest: There are a fair number of decent, caring people in prison. I've known some of them personally. And they are, or were, locked in prison for justifiable reasons. To be candid, I was a decent, caring person before I knew Christ. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I was one of the nicest, sweetest people you ever would have met. But I was filled with selfishness, hatefulness, arrogance, lust, envy, and many secret things of darkness. But oh, was I sweet.

Another thing: It's much easier to produce a decent, caring person in a culture that (whether we approve or not) has been saturated with the effects of Christianity. It's not very popular to say so now, but we derive innumerable blessings from two thousand years worth of the gospel. These blessings include, but are not limited to, our understanding of right and wrong and how we impress this upon our children. I venture to say that it's much easier for a child from twenty-first century America to grow up "decent and caring" than for the child from ancient Assyria.

Finally, of course, is the fact that all humans are created in the image of God, meaning in part that (regardless of which quadrant of the planet you occupy during which century), there is something in you that knows there is a standard to keep. It's beyond you and it's real. It's what allows many of us to become "decent and caring." That's part of God's grace.

One of my former pastors once said, rather poetically, that all humans are born as this crazy mixture of royalty and poverty. I agree. We possess this absolutely astonishing, unique stamp called the imago Dei. But it is horrifyingly tarnished, almost beyond recognition. That tarnish is what causes cute little girls with ringlets to sink their teeth into the flesh of other little people. I daresay my own pretty little girl may someday regard another child's finger as an hors d'oeuvre. Or she'll decide to test her playmate's anti-gravitational properties from the second level of the nearby playground.

We do our children no small disservice when we think of them as innocent little angels who will turn out fine if left to their own devices. The heart of discipline is love. Discipline is a form of love, and discipline without love is not discipline. It's interesting that the word "discipline" is from the Latin disciplina and discipulus, which mean, respectively, "teaching and learning" or "pupil." Proverbs 19:18 says it gently and soberly: "Chasten your son while there is hope, and do not set your heart on his destruction."

After her traumatic ordeal today, I comforted Lilia. She was, in this scenario, not the instigator. But she will be. It may not involve her teeth, but it will involve something. At any rate, I decided to inform her that her teeth are "not for putting on other people."

I think she prefers the taste of cheese, anyway.

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