[ Part 2 of a series on communication. Back to Part 1. ]
I’ve never seen a kid so completely engaged in the world, so committed to life and happy for the chance at it, as my youngest, Delaney (now 13). She has always been way ahead of the curve in intelligence, maturity, and creativity.
And, for seven years, beginning in her first week of life, she sucked on the tips of the two middle fingers of her right hand. Never wanted a pacifier, wouldn’t take a bottle. Only the breast and her fingers, then finally just her fingers, would do.
At first it was nearly constant. By the time she was three, it was only when she was tired, worried, or asleep. But at those times, it was a guarantee.
We wondered if it could cause physical problems. Dental experts warned of possible splaying or malocclusion of permanent teeth, possible speech impairments. But they often cited frequent and intense sucking as the most likely to produce these. At age five, she had deep calloused dents just above the nail beds where her teeth rested. By six, she seemed to simply be resting the tips lightly between her teeth, literally paying the practice lip service.
Becca and I discussed it casually with her, told her about the dental stuff, and offered some ideas for stopping. She’d shake her head. Sometimes her eyes would well up, and we’d drop it. One night after such a conversation, I tiptoed into her room after she was asleep and found that she had taped her own fingers together to dissuade herself…and was sucking on the sad little cellophaned flipper anyway.
It seemed for a while like she was finding her own way out of the habit. Other days, not so much. But we let it go. It was not a big deal.
One night when she was seven, I was about to enter the girls’ room to sing them to sleep. By this time, Laney’s fingers were only in the hatch at night, something we had all noticed. But as they crept into place that night, big sister Erin (then 11) couldn’t leave it.
“Laney, take your fingers out,” she said. I watched unseen from the doorway as Laney glared across at Erin and left them in. “Laney!” Erin said. “You need to stop sucking your fingers or your teeth will be weird!”
“Fine, suck your fingers if you want to be a baby. None of your friends suck their fingers.” Laney made searing, defiant eye contact with Erin — and slowly slid her fingers further in, all the way to the second knuckle…then closed her eyes and sucked hard.
I walked over to Erin’s bed and sat on the edge.
“I’m just trying to help her,” she said, half believing it.
“I know,” I whispered, “but that’s not the way. The more we force it, the harder she’ll resist.”
I switched to Laney’s bedside. Her cheeks were streaked with tears, fingers firmly enhatched. I asked what was up. “I want to stop sucking my fingers, but I can’t,” she sobbed.
“Well, it’s a hard thing to give up, isn’t it. You’ve done it since you were born. But it’s not a big deal, Lane, and I don’t think you should rush it. You’ll know when it’s time.”
“I’m gonna try tonight.”“Sweetie, why don’t you forget about it for tonight. Maybe tomorrow.”
“I think I can do it.”
I smiled at her. “It’s up to you, punkin. Either way is fine.”
Whether she did or didn’t that night is unimportant. What matters is that by morning, she was convinced she had. Which made the next night a piece of cake. And the next. As far as I know, she never went back.
This habit had been a great comfort to Delaney, something she had never been without, something she was convinced she needed. When she felt it was threatened, she clung to it. She sucked harder. Only when I told her that she was in control, that there was no rush — only when we stopped trying to snatch it from her was she able to let it go.
You may see where I’m going with this.
No, I’m not reducing the whole psycho-social complex of religion to sucked fingers. But I’ve found the analogy useful in thinking about what we all do when the things that make us feel safe are themselves threatened. Even though Laney’s intelligence and strength of character existed right up alongside her comforting habit, her mental will was no match for the comfort of that habit in the face of her sister’s attack. Religious belief can provide great comfort, and someone who has never been without that comfort can see giving it up as unthinkable. If my goal is helping people set religious beliefs aside, badgering them and ridiculing their beliefs might shake a few loose, but for most it will have the opposite effect. The more I attack, the more they retreat into the very thing. Only when I look someone in the eye and say “Here are my thoughts, but it’s your call, of course” can most people even consider setting comforting beliefs aside. And in my experience, that’s when most of them actually do.
I wouldn’t want to do without the aggressive religious critiques of Hitchens and Harris and the rest. They speak to me, voicing my own frustration and outrage at the negative effects of religion. When we disagree, as we sometimes do, I’m comfortable doing that because of where I am in my own process.
But in addition to the aggressive critique, there’s another thing that needs doing – a simple opening of space around people so they can think clearly, sometimes for the first time in their lives, about their beliefs and the consequences of those beliefs.
I know it’s damned attractive to see ourselves as liberators of a captive population. But more often than not, going in with tanks only galvanizes the locals, fueling a determined insurgency. We know this on every human level. And still we thunder at the gates, then watch astonished as the fingers slide in to the second knuckle. The few who wander across the lines throwing roses at our feet, their ears still ringing from the shells, reinforce our confidence in our methods, and we redouble our thunder.
But if instead we lower the level of shock and awe, creating instead an invitation for people to walk away under their own emotional power, I think we stand a much better chance of success.
These are just my thoughts. It’s your call, of course.