Friday, January 29, 2021

Disarming


There was once a time when I felt I always had to don my armor to go out into the world. You know what I'm talking about it, of course: everything from the clothing to the attitude that I wear when I leave the safety of home. It's the way we protect ourselves from a world that we fear will harm us if it sees who we really are.

The hostility of the world is real. Black people better protect themselves in America. Gay people too. Difference, or otherness, be it based on skin color, sexuality, ethnicity, gender, ability, neurotype, or whatever other arbitrary dividing line, makes one an especially likely target. One might think that old, straight white men would have the least need for armor in our world, yet it seems that ours also weighs heavily on our shoulders.

The problem with armor, of course, is that it means we're all walking around as armed people, protective, defensive. Some go so far as to arm themselves with offensive weapons, say the aggressive trappings of toxic masculinity, but most of us take the defensive posture, hunkered down against the slings and arrows, real and imagined, and don't for a second think that other people's imagined ones aren't as real as the real ones you face. What a way to go through life.

We crave those places where we can be our authentic selves. Among friends and family and others like us we are disarmed, but to one degree or another, most of us, most of the time go through the world armed.

There is a line that I've heard from gun rights activists, "An armed society is a polite society." It comes from Robert A. Heinlein's 1942 science fiction novel Beyond this Horizon, a vision of a world in which genetic selection has been used to virtually erase "otherness," creating a world of nearly "perfect" humans. Regular duals over minor social slights is one of the ways this dystopian society keeps itself pure. It's a world of fear and boredom. It's not a novel worth your time to read, in my opinion, but it raises the question: is otherness a necessary feature of human civilization? Are we doomed to forever wear armor and fight duels?

I hope not. 

When I find myself in a world of children, I am disarmed, instantly, and I've come to recognize that this is because they are, largely, disarmed themselves. They've not yet learned to equip themselves for the battle we've made of the world. They show themselves to us as they truly are, right now, emoting, yearning, acting, hating, and loving. And this gives me permission to leave my armor at the door as well. To be disarmed is liberating. It's liberating to be amongst liberated people. In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates asserts that no one has ever liberated themselves. I think that's about right: we liberate one another.

Were I a different type of teacher, in a different kind of circumstance, I might well see my job as one of teaching children in the art of arming themselves. Not expressly, of course, but what else is this idea of preparing children for life? We don't want kindergarten to defeat them, for instance, so we arm them with what we think they'll need to be "ready." Both consciously and subconsciously we help them don the armor that is so habitual for most of us that we don't even notice how tired it makes us, how much more difficult it makes even the most mundane of activities, and especially our relationships with those whose armor, because of the nature of their manufactured otherness, is different from our own. From this perspective it's a dystopia no less dull and deadly than the one Heinlein created.

In the company of children, we are invited to disarm ourselves. It's an invitation we're fools to decline. We needn't worry. They will, sadly, arm themselves soon enough. Our little classrooms are no match for the wider world, but today, at this moment, we as parents and educators have the power to liberate the children in our lives and, indeed, we owe it to them. After all, they liberate us from our armor, they disarm us. It's only right to return the favor. Being amongst liberated children as they bicker and bawl and strive and agree gives us a glimpse of a disarmed life. It's what gives me hope.

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