When I turned 30, I gave myself two gifts: a colorful 1940s era vintage dress handmade in Paris, and finding my childhood pediatrician.
Dr. Dunn was my doctor from the time I was born until we moved to a different city when I was 8. I was prone to ear infections, so he saw me around ten times a year on average. We lost a lot of the men in my life through those years – my daddy, grandpa, and great-grandpa, and my “adopted” Grandpa Duggins, among others. Dr. Dunn was one of the few men who was reliably there through all of those losses.
And he was a wonderful man. A gifted pediatrician, Dr. Dunn was also a Shakespearean actor, collector of African violets, and a musician in a local, old time style band playing the hammered dulcimer. He had a full white beard and twinkling eyes. He was unfailingly kind to me, and I always looked forward to going to the doctor.
More than twenty years later, back in the city I was born in, I tracked him down. When I called and explained who I was, he was delighted I’d found him and invited my mother and I to visit him and his wife in their home. It was a lovely time catching up, and before we left they invited me to join their family at a fiddlers’ festival in the Carolina mountains later that summer.
I took them up on that offer, and spent a wonderful weekend camping with their large family and enjoying the old time music of the region. (Old time is traditional mountain music similar to bluegrass, but while in bluegrass different instruments take turns with the melody, in old time, the fiddle always leads).
It was a beautiful weekend, but it was a conversation at a picnic table one night that shifted something in me.
I was sitting with Dr. Dunn and a couple of his grown sons as they talked. It was 2002, not even a full year after 9/11, and the war on terrorism was never far from anyone’s mind.
“If we want to end this,“ Dr. Dunn said passionately, “Every time a suicide bomber blows himself up, we will bomb their entire family.”
I was stunned. “But what about the children?” I asked. “They’re innocent!”
“Their children don’t matter if they are threatening my grandchildren!” he declared.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This man I had only known as kind and gentle, who had made it his life’s work to care for other people’s children, was ready to destroy children for his own grandchildren’s sake.
My head and heart were spinning, and for the first time in my life, I thought that maybe there could be something good in not having children of my own.
I always wanted children – at least one. I love kids. Nieces and nephews, my cousins’ children (one of their girls is the only child I’ve ever waited for in the hospital as she was born), the friends’ children who I’ve known and loved from birth, the neighbors’ kids playing on the beach a few blocks from my apartment.
None of the children I love are mine. And as I have come to terms with age and circumstances, I have accepted the reality that the children I love will always be other people’s children.
That’s something I’ve grieved, but there’s also a gift in it – it means that I can want for all of those children everything I would want for my own. There’s nothing I have to protect, nothing I have to lose, in doing so. Rather than having my maternal instincts captured by this one particular child of my own, every child calls out to the mother in me.
When I heard those words come out of my beloved doctor’s mouth, something shifted for me. Something opened up in the way I look at the world. I saw how the love of “our” children can become twisted into something that is toxic to “their” children.
And the world is full of endless “us and thems.” Once we begin, we will see the threat of “them” everywhere, and it is so easy to harden our hearts. It’s how we destroy each other – kill in spirit and then in flesh.
“Love your neighbor as yourself” must also mean “love your neighbor’s children as your own.”
The children of my friends and family. The children of the stranger. The children of parents who, like Mary and Joseph, brought their children far from home to a country where they could be safe to grow and thrive. The children of my enemies, even.
That day began a change in me – a change in how I look at the world, in how I understand and live out my faith, in my relationships, in my politics, in everything.
I don’t live and work to give a better life to my own children. I live and work to help give a better life and world to other people’s children. To children of every shade and nationality and religion. Children full of hopes and dreams and questions. Children I know, and children I will never meet.
But each of them is equally precious, all of these children who belong to other people.