Sometimes, the directness of children is unsettling.
They just have this way of making things plain. I am thinking of a 10-year-old white boy I met in Montgomery, Ala., in 1995. My late colleague Michael Browning and I were driving across the South, visiting battlefields of the Civil War and the civil rights movement. We filed five days of reports – learned, eloquent dialectics deconstructing the Gordian knot of race.
But we never cut as close to the meat of the matter in all our thousands of words as that little boy did in just a few when we told him what we were writing about. Appalled, he said, “No fair you have to do this because you’re this color and you have to do that because you’re that color. No fair.”
His indignation felt, well, childish.“No fair”? That’s what you say on the playground when somebody is hogging the swing. It’s what you say when big brother won’t let you have a turn playing video games. Is that really what you say about this great betrayal of America’s promise, this ugly bloodstain on America’s flag? Can something so complicated really be reduced to words so simple?
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Well, as it turns out – yes.
Sometimes, the directness of children is eye-opening.
And that brings us to Malala Yousafzai. She is, you recall, the Pakistani schoolgirl shot in the head by the Taliban last year for the “crime” of advocating education and equal rights for women and girls. In an authentic miracle, she not only survived but recovered. A few days ago, she addressed the United Nations in New York City and said this:
“We are really tired of these wars. Women and children are suffering in many ways in many parts of the world.”
Mind you, she said other things. She said we must advance women’s freedoms. She said education should be every child’s right. She said we must stand together and be brave.
All in all, it was a remarkable speech. But at day’s end, what encapsulates it all for me was that statement about war – not the words of it so much as the fact of it, the idea of this child – she had turned 16 that day – standing before the assembled nations of this warring world saying: We are tired of all the fighting. Cut it out.
Sometimes, the directness of children is challenging.
Hearing Malala’s words, I feel as I felt 18 years ago. I want to tell her that these are lovely sentiments, but she is too young to understand this sort of thing. How do you advance women’s freedoms in societies where women’s subjugation is regarded as holy writ? How do you win universal education when so many tyrants depend on universal ignorance for their power? How do you encourage people to stand and be brave when there are so many inducements to sit and be scared? How do you say “stop fighting” and expect the world to listen when war is such a useful and profitable thing?
And it’s funny. Those observations have the odd distinction of being logical, realistic, indisputable – and yet wholly unsatisfying.
Sometimes, the directness of children is confounding. And it can be burdensome, too.
It forces you to confront realities you’d as soon not confront, see truths you’d as soon not see. It has a way of cutting through complexities the way you do cobwebs in a room that has been too long shuttered and dark. You find yourself thinking maybe the automatic rejection of children’s directness says more about you than it does about them. Maybe it says that “logical,” “realistic” and “complicated” have become words you use to anesthetize your own hope, embalm your own idealism.
“We are really tired of these wars,” says the child who was shot in the head – and lived. And you realize, well, heck, I am tired of them, too.
Sometimes, the directness of children is haunting.
This is one of those times.