July 6, 2003
My neighbors’ daughter has been home on a break between a college semester and study in Brazil. She’s a beautiful young woman, and I am almost as enthralled with her as my two little girls are. She moves around from one odd job to the next – painting a house, moving furniture – wrapped up in headphones listening to a Portuguese language tape most of the time, and the three of us watch her now and then from the shade of our porch.
She has captivated my children with her warmth and her long, straight hair, something exotic to two girls who go through life with tangled curls. But what fascinates me is the presence of someone so recently grown up. In the midst of scraped knees and drippy popsicles a single glimpse of Margaret scrambling up a ladder with a paintbrush restores my faith that little girls, if they are tended well, grow to be strong, capable women.
I know that my children will be this grown up one day. We will make it there just as we’ve made our way through teething, and heat rash, and learning to walk, but I must admit that I don’t feel equipped for the rest of this journey. Most days, assisting with the emergence of a healthy and whole human soul seems like a job I never trained for.
I said as much to Margaret’s mother one day, and her answer was so simple and clear that I’ve held on to it ever since. Your job as a parent, she said, is to believe in the goodness and the talent of this person under your care. You must be the one who sees what she could become. You may not like some of the choices she will make along the way. Even so, you are the one best qualified to see her potential and reflect it back to her.
So I am trying to practice this art, and in doing so, I am coming to believe that it is a useful attitude not just for the nurturing of a child but also for changing the world. In both endeavors seeing possibilities is part of the work of realizing them.
I’ve found that it is not hard to see and believe in the potential of my own children, but believing in the potential of human beings in general requires letting go of layers and layers of cynicism and despair. Educated, sophisticated people don’t talk this way. We don’t take the evidence of wisdom or skill or courage in one place or one person as proof that those abilities could reside in every one of us. It’s much easier to assume that the great peacemakers – and the ordinary ones in our families and neighborhoods – are different from the rest of us. It is easier to assume that something sets us apart from the likes of Aldo Leopold or Rachel Carson than it is to try to speak up for people and nature with our own voices.
But, whenever I let go of my learned sophistication and really open myself to look I find evidence all around me that people are capable of great wisdom – loving wisdom – and so much creativity. We create soaring music and artwork full of color. At our wisest we work with nature, on organic farms, or with “Living Machines” that assemble plants and microbes to purify polluted water. We pursue justice, we create cooperatives, fair trade programs, and soup kitchens.
We speak such beautiful practical words and many of us try to live by them. We say, all men are created equal. We say, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
We are clever enough to leave the surface of the planet and photograph our home from space, and we are poetical enough to recognize the oneness implicit in that image of a small, blue-brown jewel hanging in blackness.
I know the examples of our failings surround us, too. Our mistakes and missteps are so many and so clear that they do not need mentioning. But the failings merely co-exist with the possibilities, just as a two-year-old’s fib or a fifteen-year-old’s recklessness co-exists with the possibility of the woman she could become. Factory farms don’t diminish the possibility displayed in a lush, diverse organic farm. The existence of bigots and haters doesn’t erase the example of lives lived in peace for the common good. The failings don’t eliminate the possibilities. Only ignoring the possibilities or deciding they are beyond our reach can do that.