Wednesday, January 14, 2015

What’s weird…

I recently had another of those now-frequent foster parenting learning moments. It occurred because, in our home, active use of one’s imagination is an encouraged pursuit. By which I mean that it’s frequent, and expected, for our six year-old to ask, just after waking, questions like, “What if you and I were cheetahs, and we raced a tiger? Who would win?” The answer is always, always, “You win!”

From there, the imaginative conversation continues through dressing time, breakfast, teeth-brushing. Topics are sometimes familiar, like sharks or Ninja Turtles. Other times, we explore outlandish realms of his imagination. And he’s always hoping for a reaction, which presents a challenge. Because I’m not always clear whether he’s wanting, say, affirmation, as in, “Absolutely! It’d be awesome if we had race car tires for feet, obviously!” Or maybe he’s going for mutual dismissal, as in, “I wouldn’t want race car tires for feet either!” Or something entirely different. In other words, his intention can be initially ambiguous and, therefore, fraught with danger. If I reject something he wanted me to affirm, the joy we’ve been sharing diminishes, and the conversation ends.

So how to respond? Well, I recently hit on an idea of which I’ve become inordinately proud. You see, for a while I’d sometimes react to his wild imaginings with, “That’s weird!” It then occurred to me that ‘weird’ isn’t a value-neutral description, right? So-called ‘weird’ people are shunned people in our culture, weird ideas considered bad ideas. We’re intolerant of (whatever we define as) weird.
But the goal of these conversations isn’t to instill in him a culturally constrained sense of what’s weird and what isn’t. Honestly, I’m skeptical of our collective rejection of ‘weirdness’. That’s often us simply being judgmental. Instead, I want him to feel free to explore his imaginings and hopes, his joys and flights of fantasy. That will help him be more creative, more confident, more open, more compassionate to others and himself. So there are times in our chats when he wants me to say, “that’s weird,” with him. And I do. And we laugh. But other times, I’d hurt his feelings if I mistakenly called ‘weird’ something he’s discussing because he thinks it fun or interesting.

Thus, my (self-proclaimed) brilliant idea- I decided that, from now on, whenever the little guy shares something wild and crazy, instead of reacting with “that’s weird,” I’ll try instead to say, “that’s unexpected.” I know, this insight probably won’t change your life, and has maybe already occurred to you. But it’s new to me. And I wish I’d framed such issues in those terms long before I had a kid in our home. After all, in high school, we spent way too much time deciding who was or wasn’t weird (or in my case, worrying about whether others considered me so!). With that moniker came shame and isolation, lower confidence and less creativity. If, by contrast, I just thought in terms of what was expected or not, I’d probably have carried around less baggage.

And, sadly, I didn’t leave those judgmental attitudes behind in adolescence. Adults are as quick as kids and teens to isolate, to ignore, to fear, to pre-judge others they consider ‘weird.’ Is this a defense mechanism? A way to scapegoat someone so we feel less bad about ourselves? Are we so stressed about family, bills, work that we’d rather not work at understanding unexpected things? Does that sound too tiring, so we call them weird? I’m not sure which the right description is. All of the above and more? All I know is that we invest too much moral importance into whether people or things we encounter match our expectations, our pre-decided beliefs about what’s appropriate, polite, acceptable, decent. Pick your poison.

But we serve a Savior who built many relationships with folk his contemporaries thought marginal, indecent, sinful, awkward. AKA weird. Yet he went to the grave and returned to champion these unexpected ones. People like us. That wasn’t weird behavior. It was divine, amen? However unexpected, it also changed the world. For good. It should change us.

Grace and Peace,
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