In life, there are many things we can learn from other people. And there are many times when we have to be “the other people” in order to learn.
In Unitarian Universalism, there is a tradition of blessing babies and young children when they become a part of the congregation by giving them a rose with all of the thorns removed. While some babies manage to stuff the bloom in their mouths before parents or ministers can react, for the most part, it is a pretty consequence-free ritual. We take off the thorns, you are loved and safe and held here as a part of this beloved community.
As children grow, they are invited into religious education and youth group and suddenly they are graduating from high school or turning 18 and it is time for them to bridge out of youth into young adulthood. We have a UU ritual for that time too, called bridging.
This ritual usually involves a rose as well – this one in all its natural thorny glory. For the world is beautiful – and it will prick your soul with pain and grief, just like the thorns on the rose. And we hope and pray, as a compassionate congregation, that the love and teaching and listening and community that we have shared with each young adult is enough for them to live through the pain and the grief and create and appreciate beauty.
Somewhere in between these two rituals – the time of no thorns and the time of all the thorns – lays a lot of love and logic. Empathy for the very real struggles that children face in this very adult-ist culture, compassion for their fears, champions for their dreams, boundary-setting for their health – all of this is faithful work of beloved community.
I remember it almost as a rite of passage in my Granny’s kitchen – truly learning the concept of hot. Up until this time, my mom always told me that the oven was hot and then moved me out of harm’s way. While we were visiting my grandparents, I wandered into the kitchen. My Granny told me the oven was hot and then she watched as I touched it anyway. Cradling me in her arms, she gently ran cold water over my little red hand. “And now you know what hot means,” she said –really kindly, not snarky or mean – just naming the learning with compassionate grace.
A small thorn. An affordable mistake – one that taught me to listen and to ask “what does that mean?” before plowing ahead into a situation. One that taught me to be kind to others in the midst of learning. One that taught me that sometimes learning can be painful, but ultimately liberating. Until I knew what hot meant, I couldn’t understand the warning.
I try to keep this learning keenly centered when I am in the midst of co-leading an anti-racist training, listening to white people go through the classic cycle of denial, anger, bargaining, depression. I wish, somehow, that they could just get to internalizing the learning without the painful, sometimes shame-full process.
Remembering how I had to learn the concept of hot keeps me humble and present, remembering that there was a time when I did not know about the concepts of systemic racism or internalized racial oppression. There was a time when I went through denial, anger, bargaining, depression on my way to acceptance. There are times when I still do, since I have oceans more to learn about how white supremacy and internalized racial oppression manifest within me and the world in which I live. And I am only beginning to understand how to dismantle this dis-ease.
May we all experience and offer each other the grace of learning – kindness and compassion and empathy …and encouragement to keep on learning when the lessons get tough.