When I’m in the car, I listen almost exclusively to NPR. To be perfectly honest, I began doing so because I felt super-hip saying, “Hey, did you hear that piece on NPR this morning?” What’s going on in my head in those moments is, “I listen to NPR, so I must be way-smart and cool, and so you must like me. Right? Please say I’m right. Please like me.” Over time, though, I began to actually, you know, learn stuff. And feel stuff. And wonder about stuff I’d never thought of before.
I was driving my little Honda Fit home from Columbia one afternoon when I heard a piece I just couldn’t shake. The gentleman being interviewed, Andrew Solomon, had a gravelly voice, and he so carefully constructed his phrases that I thought he was surely reading from a manuscript. He was talking about conversations he’d had with Peter Lanza, the father of Adam Lanza—the young man who, before shooting himself, killed his mother, six teachers, and 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. I was heartbroken for Lanza, who confessed that although he loved his son, he wished he’d never been born.
I’d only heard part of the interview, so the moment I got home, I searched online for Solomon and discovered that he’d written a book called Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity. So, I did what I do: I went immediately to Kelley’s Happy Place #2, Barnes and Noble, and bought it.
(This isn’t really a book review, I promise, so hang with me for a minute or two.)
Far From the Tree is a series of essays exploring the lives of children who are different from their parents in drastically different ways—children who are deaf or are dwarfs; children who have autism, schizophrenia, down syndrome, or disabilities; children who are prodigies; children who commit crimes, were conceived in rape, who are transgender. I spent nearly a year soaking in this book, and not only because it’s 702 pages long (962 if you count the notes, bibliography, and such). It took me so long getting through it because there’s just so much humanity in there that it was difficult to take in quickly.
The New York Times Book Review had this to say about Far From the Tree: “A book everyone should read, and there’s no one who wouldn’t be a more imaginative and understanding parent—or human being—for having done so.” Yes. Absolutely. Before I read it, I would’ve described myself as empathic—maybe even forward-thinking. This book cracked my head and my heart wide open. So much more than I could’ve imagined.
I’m sickened when people are treated as “less than.” Any person. In my past life, when I did counseling, I found myself extending compassion to a child who’d been molested by his father–and simultaneously extending grace to that father as he was being led out the door of his home by law enforcement. When I hear about rioters and looters, my first thought isn’t, “What is wrong with them?” It’s “What’s wrong with the world that this is the way people try to be heard?” When I hear the hateful language being spewed about people who are gay, lesbian, or transgender; women who’ve chosen to have an abortion; or people with a religious preference that differs from their own, I want to shake my fists and scream, “These are human beings you’re talking about. They’re not an issue or a debate to be had.”
I don’t think like this because I’m a saint (but you knew that) or because I’m one of those hippie-NPR-listening-tree-huggers (which may or may not be true). I think like this because I’ve been instructed to. We’re supposed to love one another. That’s not a polite suggestion. It’s not limited to people who look and think and act and talk just like we do. I’m not always good at this. I don’t always say nice things about ultra-conservative, evangelical Christians, for example. My sweet husband (whom I’m sure you’ll meet in a post at some point) accused me over the summer of being so open-minded that I’ve become close-minded. That observation broke me.
Here’s the bottom line: I think we don’t love one another because we don’t know one another. I said the other day that authenticity breeds kindness. So does listening—whether face-to-face or through a book like Far From the Tree. You’ll hear me say this a lot: I’m not suggesting that we all need to change our opinion on issues. I’m only suggesting that we need to change our opinion about people.
I don’t know how else we’ll be able to love them.