I’ll admit that last night, amid the breaking news report that Osama Bin Laden was dead, my first reactions weren’t the greatest. They ranged from “Really? Why is this news?” to “Wow. Desperate ploy to manipulate the American people.” In short, I was a selfish brat last night, and myopic to boot. Some gracious people set me straight (both of whom I’ve invited to guest write a post for the blog) and I’ve learned my lesson, which – handily enough – Mark Twain* espoused so succinctly:
“Better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”
*The quote is attributed to Twain in at least four different versions, and has also been attributed to Abraham Lincoln and Confucius. The overall thought seems to come from Proverbs 17:28.
Suffice it to say, I won’t be offering many further musings on the geopolitical ramifications of the death of Bin Laden (and I’ll follow the lead of the esteemed New York Times and not refer to him as “Mr.” either). Instead, I’ll just leave you with my parenting conundrum from my car ride with Ella this morning.
I was listening to the radio, trying to hear what I could about the overnight developments in the Bin Laden story. I shushed Ella two or three times, and finally she couldn’t take anymore.
“Why do you keep shushing me, daddy?”
“Because, Ella, I’m trying to listen to the news.”
“Because there’s a very important news story happening right now, and I would like to hear the details.”
“What’s the story, daddy?”
Now, if you’ve read this blog long enough, or if you happen to know me in general, you know that I typically don’t duck tough questions from my kid and I normally don’t “kid-friendly”* the answers to tough questions. This morning, I wanted to. But, since I had snapped at her an been a bit of a jerk I decided she deserved an honest (albeit complex) answer to the question.
*By kid-friendly, I mean those people who lie to their kids instead of answering the question honestly. I soften my answers for her age-level, as I believe is appropriate, and try to make sure I thoroughly explain my answer to her satisfaction. And I try to do this with all kids, not just my own, so beware if your kid decides to ask me a question…
“The story is about a man who killed a lot of people. They’re trying to tell us that he’s dead.”
“How did he die?”
“Well, some very special soldiers tracked him down and killed him.”
Probably could’ve used some more time to polish that answer, in retrospect. And I certainly should’ve known that the inevitable “Why?” was coming. But as I mentioned above, I wasn’t exactly on my game with regard to this issue, and Ella caught me flatfooted with her next question:
“Why was it okay to kill him?”
Now, I could’ve taken the easy way out, and to some degree I did. In this instance, “He was a bad man” would be an almost perfect answer to the question. Ella knows that there is good and bad, right and wrong, and that people who do good get rewarded while people who do bad tend to fall off of high places and die murky, unseen deaths (call it the Disney Effect; see Beauty, Sleeping; also White, Snow; and Beast, Beauty and the). All I had to do was lay the trump card down, and the discussion, for the most part would have been over.
But as I said: I wasn’t on my game. Instead, I blurted out, “I don’t know, Ella. I guess because he was a bad man.”
I probably would’ve been okay, if not for the first part: I don’t know. It was an admission of unease, of moral ambiguity, or at the very least a sign of mental distress. My daughter doesn’t like ambiguity (she gets that from her mother) and so she pounced on my unfinished certainty.
“Why don’t you know, daddy? Was it wrong to kill that bad man?”
Seriously – where do you go with a five year-old on this? I’ve had conversations on Facebook this morning with adults who don’t have that question’s answer nailed to the ground with complete certitude. How in the heck do you break down the moral arguments contained within this single, simple statement? Perhaps I’m over-thinking the whole thing, but I don’t want Ella to grow up as someone incapable of parsing the shades of grey, and there’s certainly some to be found in this action.*
*Again, I’m staying away from this as a larger post, mainly because the death of Bin Laden has multiple meanings on many fronts. But in this narrow context of trying to teach a five year-old the way of the world, I wrestle with teaching her to see the world purely in black and white, particularly when there are so many people who can manipulate the facts to their own advantage. I’d rather wrestle with the tough questions now than see her get sucked in by someone’s horrific rhetoric later on because I settled on only teaching her “Us good, them bad” when she was little.
We were running out of time and road for the discussion, so I knew I would have to find some way of wrapping things up that would A, allow me to answer the question and B, allow me to answer it in a way that wouldn’t force the teacher to call me later on and ask why my daughter was talking about the death of a terrorist during “Story Time with Archie the Fluff Bug.” My brain was going ninety to nothing. I was drowning. The utter helplessness was terrifying. Finally I just tossed this out to her:
“Ella, I think killing that man was the right thing for our country, and the men and women who did it were brave and selfless. Sometimes, honey, we have to make hard choices.”
I could see her face in the rearview mirror; she was thinking about those words. And somehow (the grace of God?) she accepted that answer as sufficient. She nodded, fiddled with her shoelaces, and then reminded me that she didn’t want to walk in the back door with me – she wanted to be dropped off in the carpool line “like a princess.” (Continued fallout from the Royal Wedding, I suppose.)
She hopped out of the car with a smile and went inside to school, where I’m hoping she’ll never have a second’s thought on the topic we discussed. But it’s stuck with me, as a father and pastor and American citizen. In the end, I think it was the right thing for our country. It still leaves me with some questions, but I wrestle with questions all the time.