Breaking down barriers

How can we move beyond revulsion or pity to help our children find a sense of connection and common ground with even the most marginalized among us?

As I drove my son to school early one morning he pointed out a man standing on a grassy triangle rotating his head around and around and around. I would guess, just from his looks and the way he moved his body, that this was a man in some sort of mental distress. The fact that he was standing not far from a homeless shelter lent credence to this assumption.

“Hey, look at that guy rolling his head Mom.” Here was a teachable moment. But how to teach? Many children have been taught poorly in such moments. Our dis-ease or active repulsion in the face of someone who is so far outside our orbit of normalcy can be learned by our children without us having to say a word. If we have a little more control, but are still not relaxed, we may chide them for pointing—not wanting their open curiosity to somehow call attention to our own, with all its shades of revulsion or guilt or fear. Or we may rise to the occasion to give a little lesson about tolerance, explaining how some people are differently abled, and how it looks like this man is struggling with some problems that we don’t have.

This is a well-intentioned response and it contains some accurate information that might be useful to a child. But I would wish for even more. Somehow that careful explanation of how we are different—with its implicit assumption that we should pity those who have less than we have—can create a distance, a sense of separation, that doesn’t serve our children well. I would wish for them to be able to have a sense of connection with everybody they come across, regardless of the differences.

But what to do with his ill-kempt guy standing by the side of a busy street and moving so oddly? By a most wonderful coincidence, I had not long before been told by a doctor that I should rotate my head in a similar way to ease a shoulder injury. So I responded by commenting that I should probably be doing exactly the same thing. My son had been studying China and I mentioned how the Chinese traditionally do their morning exercises outdoors in big groups. He suggested lightheartedly that I could join that man, and together we imagined the growth of mass outdoor morning exercises in Philadelphia, starting with that man and me in that little triangle of grass under the el.

There was something very sweet about this moment. It was a moment set up for noticing separation, for feeling distance, or repulsion, or pity. Yet we had found a sense of connection, and a gift. Whether intentionally or not, this man was modeling an activity that I needed to get better at, showing me a way forward.