by Mary Volmer
Mutha Magazine — March 5, 2019
The other day, romping through the living room, stuffed kitty under one arm, you stopped, raised your little chin like Nero and declared: “I am the special one!” Floppy blond hair, brown eyes wide, a pint-sized superhero, minus the cape. The performance should have been funny. It was funny. Your dad and I laughed.
So, why does my chest feel tight? Why this dread? You’re always bring home words, songs and habits (good and bad) from school. And really, shouldn’t every six-year-old have the right to stand among loved ones and declare with the confidence of the chosen: “I am the special one!” Children learn better soon enough.
But that’s not true, is it? Watching Judge Kavanaugh’s tantrums on television last fall I knew it wasn’t true. Not all children learn better. There, on the television, I saw what happens when a privileged boy, like you, grows up believing he is the special one.
Such a boy grows into someone who views others as allies or obstacles to a success measured in money, power and popularity; a man who remains — at seventeen, twenty, forty, fifty — as deluded about his own relative worth as you, age six. A petulant man clinging to the lie that he earned advantages he was born into, and that people not born into the same advantages — or the same religion, ethnicity, nationality or gender — deserve less regard.
I don’t wish for you a life of such spiteful delusion. You are a special one. That’s true. You will always be my special one. But you are not the special one.
Don’t strive for glory, money, power, or prestige at the cost of other people. Your race, religion, sexuality, and gender entitles you to nothing more than a place with everyone else.
Now, I have been known to overthink, well, everything. I hear the voices of my peers who scoff, “Good God, Mary. He’s only six. A special, my special, the special one. He doesn’t understand the difference.”
But you understand more than we give you credit for. At three, you knew the difference between dozens of wooden train engines. At four, you knew your letters and the sounds they made. Now you read tones of voice, expressions, postures. You know how to make me mad and to laugh. You correct me if I fudge a word in your favorite books. You know, because we have taught you, how to say “please” and “thank you.” You know it’s wrong to hit and lie and cheat, though you may not understand why. And, conscious or not of the differences between articles, you did say “the” special one. Conscious or not, you may already have begun to internalize and integrate this lie in the way you see the world and your place within it.
According to Aristotle, moral virtues are learned by habit and practice. He suspected what psychologists have confirmed, that habits of youth make an enormous difference, perhaps all the difference, in the way a person lives their life. Harmless — funny even — as your performance was, I see it was also a kind of practice, a habituation, a mimicry of the selfish and self-centered posturing you’ve seen not only on playground, but in grown white men on TV.
That scares me. And thing is, I know it scares you too. Because if you are not the special one, then what are you? How do you deserve to be treated?
Two nights ago I woke to find you rigid with fear at the side of my bed. You’d had a bad dream, a reoccurring nightmare. A man with a gun came into your school and shot you. I could do nothing to comfort you. In the newsfeed of your life, this kind of violence has become ordinary. The killer is almost always a man with a knife, a gun, a bomb. A man desperate to prove himself the special one. Whether he believes himself entitled or chosen, it doesn’t matter — this man, some other mother’s son, is victim and symptom of the same delusion, a false dichotomy that divides people into those of worth and those worthless.
That’s why I’m writing, to tell you that it does not have to be this way. You don’t have to live this way. I’d rather overreact now than wake in ten or twenty years to discover you have become a victim or disciple of this brutal mentality.
Be a special one. Open your heart to empathy and the door will swing both ways. Your worth does not depend on others being made less. Fulfillment, happiness, and spiritual wellbeing are riches earned when you love freely, listen well, and give without expectation. They are outgrowths of our common humanity which cannot be embraced if you hold yourself apart from, or above, other people.
The good news is, you are only six; your ideas and habits are still forming. An only child, yes, but you have been born into a community of great diversity. I have hope for you. Thinking about moral virtues as skills to be practiced gives me hope. Your dad and I are sports-mad. We understand practice. If we can take you to the gym to play and shoot jump shots, there’s no reason we can’t also practice kindness, generosity, and empathy until these skills, too, become second nature. There’s no reason I can’t to celebrate the performance of these skills as consistently as I acknowledge good marks or bad behavior. A shift in emphasis may be all you need: shift from “the” to “a” and from “I” to “we.” It’s a start, at least.
I slip into your room to tuck you in, your face alive with dreams, and the dread inside me eases. What a beautiful thing if by the time you are old enough to read these words you no longer needed them. This is my hope, one I will act upon to help you grow into a man full of grace and empathy. For your own good and for the good others.
Published in MUTHA Magazine (March 5, 2019)