When my three-year old son asked me recently, “How did we get here?” I thought my theory on divinity would appropriately provide an answer.
“We are here because others came before us and they passed this world onto us and all of things that you and that I love in it. You love trains, right? Well someone before me, before you made those trains. So, we are here to preserve these things, this world, the trees and the sky so kids like you who will come later can also love this stuff.”
He listened, and thought, and then responded, “Like your papa made things for you.” He knows my parents were but are now gone. “Yes, like my papa,” I said.
Content with my answer, my son let it go. It was then I realized how my life had come full circle.
I had become my father in this moment and finally understood how he felt each time I posed a similar question to him on our frequent family trips. While everyone else slept in the station wagon, the two of us would chat about life. The soothing love of my father’s voice sought me out in the darkness of the backseat. He was pleading with my child’s brain to accept his answers as-is because he had little better to offer me than.
“We just came here because God loves us,” he would say.
That answer was useless to me, though. I stared out the back window at the dark, dark sky and asked him again.
“But who made God?”
After a few more attempts at getting me to let this particular line of questioning fade with sleep, he gently suggested that he wasn’t able to give me an answer right then; trying to do so would require him to pull the car over.
“We will never get to grandma and grandpa’s house then.” I let him off the hook, and filed the question away.
My son’s question was one I had anticipated since my own childhood trips. If that existential angst had been able to rattle my little brain so, then surely my progeny would also need a clear explanation one day. A lot of thought had gone into formulating that answer about divinity, and so I felt my response, while perhaps not fully understood in all of its juicy nuance, was a fair one for my son; it demonstrated to him that his dad wasn’t just saying “because.”
Feeling good that I had managed to explain to my son a rather complicated concept, the next question he posed really caught me off guard.
“Papa, why do some people not have anything?”
Earlier that day, we had seen a guy digging around in our garbage dumpster for food and other valuables. The gentleman asked me to set my bag near the dumpster and not in it, as he wanted to see if anything could be salvaged. Sadly, some in our society would view this man as nothing more than a nuisance, an unpleasant inconvenience.
“Oh, those people scare me, don’t let him get too close to our car,” some will say.
The man near the garbage, however, was also fulfilling a role by unconsciously reminding us that we have a duty to each other. This man’s suffering, whether the fault be his own or not, was nevertheless a pain we should at least try to mitigate. In a way, the man was reminding us to accept and love not just those fortressed in large cars and fancy houses but to even the neediest among us.
The man we had seen near the garbage was also covered in a layer of heavy snow; in a way looked like a snowman which sort of startled my son. Afterwards, as we made our way over to our chosen play area, we saw some kids laying about in the snow; wet, dirty, and parent-less, the kids were without sleds or shovels. My son looked concerned that their play-time would be less productive.
Poverty-suffering people was not a new sight to my young son — he has traveled a lot in his nearly four years; but on that day, a couple days after Christmas, it seemed like a new awareness had touched him. He had a family and people who loved him. We were doing our best to take care of him and the abundance of Christmas may have spawned the question of having versus not-having.
Playing, laughing, and squealing as he threw snowballs at me, he then bent down and for the first time in his life ate some snow — he had already been warned about the yellow snow! I asked him how it tasted.
“It’s kind of salty and wet,” he responded with surprise. It was his use of the word salt that most surprised me, though, and as I stood there and watched him dig out a small igloo, I returned to his question about poverty.
You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:13–16, New International Version
The interpretation of Christ’s words here are that the Apostles were like salt and light. While many today overlook the importance of salt for survival, for many centuries it was quite essential. Used all over the world, it preserved meats and fish which otherwise would have spoiled almost immediately.
Salt provided physical sustainability. The suggestion that the Apostles were like salt meant that they were in a sense preserving man’s soul by “sprinkling” it with the words of Jesus Christ. As these words were figuratively so vital to the continued existence of man’s soul, the Apostles also became the light for they were shining a path to eternal life guiding humanity out of the darkness.
This explanation of the salt and light reference is perfect, really. As an adult I can fully build the intellectual bridges needed to carry it through to a more practical application in life; but there is a lot missing also from this explanation and even more so if one happens to be a toddler.
We came home after playing in the snow for another forty minutes and my son went in for a nap. After making coffee, I sat down to formulate my response to him so I would be ready the next time the question about poverty arose.
Salt and Light
Many people, upon seeing a homeless person, cringe and pull away. Recently I read about how the super-wealthy, and quite liberal, New Yorkers on the Upper West Side of Manhattan objected to having homeless people live in an empty hotel in their neighborhood. In order to limit crowding at the normal homeless shelters during the pandemic, the city had arranged to have the hotel provide living space — one homeless person per room. The super rich didn’t like the inconvenience of seeing “that” part of society. Like the super-rich, many of us consciously or subconsciously pull away and subtly shun the impoverished.
But are these people not the salt we need for the preservation of our humanity?
Whether we encounter the displaced, the homeless, or just those beaten down by the weight of reality — such as the man dumpster-diving in front of my son and me —in response, compassionate humans, those internally aligned with my impressions of divinity, feel the burn of the salt in the world around them. When one of us suffers, a cut on the collective human body is made; the sting of salt creeping into that wound should motivate us all to try to put an end to that pain.
These people of salt, the ones reaffirming our commitment to divinity, the impoverished and suffering, also light our path to divinity. They keep us human, compassionate — and when we don’t feel the burn of that misfortune, when we are blinded to the light they offer, divinity ends. We forget about not only those who came before us, and who will come after; but we forget about those next to us.
Sadly, so many of us in this modern life are numb to the burn. Our leaders and influencers, untethered from divinity and filled with callousness, lead us to darker places. It is imperative we begin to feel and see again.
In the time that my son napped, I had arrived at an answer I felt was serviceable; one not only that he could understand but that might also be able to shape him. As he entered the kitchen with his stuffed monkey, I figured it would be useless to tell him about my theory, though. Kids his age have very particular memories and he would have probably not been ready to put my out-of-the-blue answer back into the context of that earlier question. When he does ask again, however, this answer will have had time to ripen and it be perfectly formulated. Guiding him to this understanding of salt and light will be my next task during this pandemic.
Maybe then, my son, with the theory I have given him about salt, and how it pertains to poverty in our world, can become in a way a light for his peers. Maybe, he will be able to, with the genuine subtleness of a child, guide those whose understanding of such things is less clear. He will shine a more humane truth onto the path ahead of us to tomorrow, a crucial element in my theory on divinity, for his those friends and they will in turn enlighten their parents; thereby making even yesterday divine.
Maybe, a realignment is we really need to bring us to a better place.