I’ve imagined lately that the wide-eyed knowing concern of Odysseus sailing between Scylla and Charybdis, twin sea monsters of Greek legend, perfectly describes the sense I’ve had as I’ve considered how to parent wisely during this fractious time for our culture. You might remember the situation from the Odyssey: the rocky shoals and six-headed monster Scylla on one side, and the gaping-mouth whirlpool of Charybdis on the other, and Odysseus and his men have to sail through on a razor’s edge between the two. In the end, they choose to hug the rocks in order to lose “only a few men,” rather than the whole ship in the whirlpool. No one wins, it seems, when faced with two sea monsters.
It feels like a zero-sum game as a parent in our culture, currently, as well. Choices abound—right or left, Trump or Biden, to vaccinate or not to vaccinate (that is the question), just to name a few—and what is a parent to do for oneself, let alone how do we coach our children on how to encounter these issues for themselves. And let’s not fool ourselves that this is merely an existential parenting crisis about warring ideas, either. These ideas, these choices, play out in our children’s interactions with neighbors, friends, and family members on a daily basis. They need our help and guidance now, more than ever. What is a wise parent to do during such times?
I’ve found comfort and inspiration lately from Charlotte Mason’s wisdom in her book, Ourselves. This volume is all about, as she puts it, helping us realize the great inheritance that each of us has as children of God, made in His image. It’s actually written to our children to help them learn more about themselves and others, and at Ambleside all of our 7th and 8th graders read the text over the course of two years.
I was inspired as I was observing our 7th graders read her chapter on sympathy in their Citizenship class this week. Perhaps it is this aspect of love that holds the key to navigating these uncharted, dangerous parenting waters. Sympathy, she says, is comprehension of another. She says:
“For to understand one human being so completely that you feel his feelings and think his thoughts is really like gaining possession of a new world; it is gaining the power of living in another’s life… Each trait we know in one person should be to us as a key wherewith to open the natures of others. If we find that it is possible to wound one person with a word, beat one person with a look, let that knowledge make us tender and delicate in our dealings with all people…”
How would we approach those we disagree with differently if we took these words to heart? Perhaps the secret to candid and caring conversation is not changing our opinions (though sometimes that can and should happen), or in hiding our true thoughts, but in sympathy, in giving each neighbor in our lives the understanding that we ourselves crave. Perhaps we should make an effort to train our children in sympathy, and model it for them in these challenging times. Lord knows that we will have plenty of opportunities to do so. As a parent, that feels a bit more manageable than the sea monsters, doesn’t it?
To leave her work there seems pretty trite and overly simplistic, though. Lest we rush off too soon, she has a word of warning for us, as well:
“This is the sympathy we owe to our fellows, near and far off. If we have anything good to give, let us give it, knowing with certainty that they will respond. If we fail to give this Sympathy, if we regard the people about us as thinking small, unworthy thoughts, doing mean, unworthy actions, and incapable of better things, we reap our reward. We are really, though we are not aware of it, giving Sympathy to all that is base in others, and thus strengthening and increasing their baseness: at the same time we are shutting ourselves into habits of hard and narrow thinking and living.”
Hard and narrow thinking and living… that smacks too much of the Odyssey conundrum for my liking. We parents need the Holy Spirit to be able to give others the true sympathy, the real understanding of Jesus Christ. We then might find our eyes opened and our hearts enlightened as we practice it with our neighbors, for our children’s sake. Let us be aware of hard and narrow thinking in our own lives, and be quick to repent and hear from our Father about what is actually good, true, and beautiful for our lives and families.
So, finally, how do we do this practically in our daily interactions? One way, she says, is through tact, through listening to others. She has this encouragement for us:
“An attentive and deferential listener performs some of the highest offices of Sympathy; he raises and sustains the person to whom he listens, increases the self-respect of him who has done something, or seen something, or suffered something, which he wishes to tell. This is true service, because we all, ‘even the youngest,’ think too little of ourselves; and for that reason have not the courage of that which is possible to us.”
How might you apply this admonition today? I’d love to hear your ideas, or your reports as you try to listen with love and sympathy. Feel free to send your story to firstname.lastname@example.org.