Difference doesn’t need to be a reason for separation, distrust, or conflict.
This morning I watched as kids from 18 months to 10 years old played together. Everyone waited patiently without pushing or complaining when one of the toddlers wanted to climb up the ladder to the water slide, and the big girls helped her slide down when she was scared at the top. Four year olds and 8 year olds batted balloons across the house together; 3 year olds and 9 year olds danced to music videos together. The difference in their ages – a very significant difference, honestly, in both physical and mental development – was not an impediment to enjoying their time together.
This morning I watched as children with multiple developmental disorders and disabilities played together. A girl with Down syndrome held hands with two “normal” girls as they careened down the water slide together laughing. Four boys with varying levels of autism and speech and language delays and two neurotypical boys took turns on the slide, crashing into each other, trying new ways of going down, splashing themselves and each other, without any comments on the different abilities or behaviors represented. The point was to enjoy the water, and they all enjoyed it in each other’s presence without being held back by the very noticeable differences between them.
This morning I watched as people gathered together to celebrate the life of a boy who is different in multiple ways, who faces unique challenges, and who is very much loved. I am sure that it was this love, spilling over from everyone present, that smoothed out all the potential conflict that could have been caused by the myriad of differences there this morning. By learning to love at least one other person unconditionally, with complete acceptance, with eyes to see them for who they are, with ears ready to hear them however they are able to communicate, we begin to learn how to extend that love to others as well. We look for the bright shining highlights in each other, instead of the behavioral challenges or the confusing differences. We strive for connection and communication even in the most difficult moments, instead of letting those difficulties drive us away. We begin to learn to say, and think, and live, with this perspective: that I am made in the image and likeness of God, and so are you, no matter how different we are from one another; let us meet in the heart and center of that image; let it bind us together in love.
This morning I watched a small microcosm of the kingdom of God play out before me, and my heart was filled to see it.
Differences are so often a cause of fear and suspicion. This person acts and looks and speaks differently than me, so I don’t know how to predict their actions, so I am afraid and want to stay away from them, or I speak more harshly to them because of my unease and discomfort. These people are not like me, so maybe they don’t deserve the same freedoms that I have. An older couple may ask their neighbors why they don’t just keep their children inside, as if because of their age the children have less of a right to access public outdoor space. A concerned citizen may call the police if they see a developmentally delayed adult acting strangely and defend their actions by protesting that the individual should just stay inside their group home if they can’t behave “normally” in public. A group of fairly enlightened founding fathers may preserve slavery and oppress native people because they see them as less capable or even less human. White southerners may institute separate facilities for themselves and legislate others out because they are afraid of being “contaminated” by people of other races. And normally compassionate Americans may applaud strict and trauma-inducing policies of family separation because they are afraid that these immigrants may be lawless criminals and traffickers.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. And we who are parents have the chance to shape the future world into a more understanding and loving place by giving our children the chance, here and now, to experience difference and to see how little it really matter when it comes to living and enjoying life together.