When I was in either Middle School or High School (and I’m guessing Freshman year of High School, but don’t quote me on that), I was assigned to read the book Of Mice and Men. This month, two of my children were assigned to read it, and one of them finished the book yesterday afternoon.
I vaguely remember thinking it was a sad and depressing book. I don’t remember stewing on it or being markedly affected by it, which is a strong contrast to my child’s reaction. I saw this child walk into the room in which I was working, and said child (let’s call the child Pat for the sake of anonymity) looked physically ill. I asked Pat if there was something wrong and Pat replied that he/she’d just finished reading Of Mice and Men. Then the tears started to fall, and continued falling through a good discussion of some of the book’s central themes: friendship, justice, moral responsibility, and the lack of a place in our society for some people.
Good books wound the reader. Great books leave scars that the reader will carry and revisit throughout life, and that is precisely why we have chosen to allow our children to begin to bear these wounds while they are relatively young. Pat was grieving over the realities of life, and it is important to us that we help the children learn how to process the griefs, pain, sin, brokenness, injustices, and immoral behavior of the human race. We want them to ask the questions: “How can we let this happen?” “Why does it have to be this way?” “Where is the justice in this?” “What kind of people do/allow/turn a blind eye to this?” “How do we function in this kind of society?”
More importantly, we want to teach the children to cultivate hope. That seems a little contradictory to the questions above, but they are crucially linked. Yesterday, Pat and I discussed the gamut of reactions that people have to the sort of injustice and plain wrongness he/she encountered in the book, and that is a true reflection of some aspects of society. We talked about the pain he/she was experiencing and contemplated multiplying that pain over and over as a person experiences more and more painful injustices in their life. We talked about the ways people have chosen to deal with that pain, including drugs, fatalism, destructive relationships, and isolation.
The pain is a result of our deep desire for the world to be fair and just. We want the weak to be taken care of and for the strong to be merciful and gentle. We want crimes avenged, and we want injured parties to be restored. We want law applied, and we also want law flexible enough to take into account all the circumstances that provoked a criminal’s action. Reality is that injustice is everywhere and it cannot be escaped, and that hurts.
When I talk about cultivating hope in the children, I mean that I want them to have their eyes open to the reality of sin in the world, and I want their longings for justice to be directed to the judge of all the earth, who will do right. I want them to be agents of justice and mercy as they are able, but I want them to know and operate in faith that some injustices, some hurts, will only be healed when the King finally puts all things to rights.
I want them to be inoculated with hope as they encounter the world. This is why I have been and will continue to be an advocate of literature as a core tool in the raising of strong and capable Christian men and women. In books, the children get a glimpse of the realities of the outside world while still in a nurturing and safe environment. They learn to process what they see and become more and more equipped to engage the world with knowledge and hope.
I’d never toss the keys to the car to a kid who’d had no guided experience and learning about how to drive safely. Similarly, I don’t want to thrust a young man or woman out into the world as an independent adult without some guided experience in how to handle it safely and as one who has a sure and comforting hope in the One who will indeed make all things right.