Anyone who casually knew my family in October of 2008, would have known that that I was the father of a newly minted five-year-old. The tote-board for Lizzie’s October 15th birthday (that she shares with her older brother) started on the February before her birthday. Not since “Y-2-K” had there been such an anticipated countdown. Over the course of seven months, at least a dozen blueprints for a suitable birthday celebration were vetted. Plans were formed, reformed, and totally discarded, only to be rescued from the trash and reconsidered again.
Many times over many months, I sat ring-side, watching charmed smiles spread across the faces of teachers, waiters, waitresses, and soccer parents. I concluded that it must feel special and charming to have a four-year-old personally invite you to her birthday party. I listened while Lizzie promised coveted seats of honor at the head table. In most cases, I didn’t have the heart to tell the invitee that my daughter is somewhat promiscuous when it comes to birthday invitations, that she had robo-invited enough guests to fill an auditorium.
Over the course of seven months, Lizzie demonstrated a focus worthy of a President’s Chief of Staff. At any given family dinner or party at our house, when the conversation strayed off message, Lizzie’s adept facilitation got us back on point: “Can we just talk about my birthday for awhile?”
Lizzie the Laser demonstrated the same skill set, when she made the cut, and joined her pre-K soccer squad. Conversations about such things as health-care reform, or tax policy would be pre-empted by a four-year-old news flash containing urgent information. “I wear black shorts to my games, but red shorts to practice!” (exclamation point completely necessary!). In the middle of a conversation about somebody’s ailing parent, Lizzie would break in with news that one of her teammates fell and scraped open her knee! (again, exclamation point urgently required!).
Somewhere before Lizzie’s fifth birthday, my niece, and dear friend Liz (Lizzie’s namesake) arrived with her long-time boyfriend with one of those smiles on her face that screamed out, “We have news to tell you!” Within moments we were popping open a bottle of wine to toast the newly affianced couple. My wife very appropriately asked all the relevant questions: “Where did he ask you?” “What did he say?” “Andy, did call her dad?” “What did her dad say to you?” “When’s the wedding?” But in between each question, my little Lizzie would break in with another piece of news about her first soccer game, or a recent practice. The future bride would graciously smile, place her story on hold, and listen. Finally, I grew so tired of these interruptions that I knelt on the floor in front of my Lizzie. I held her little shoulders in my hands for emphasis. “Lizzie, you are not allowed to say anything unless it has something to do with Andy and Liz getting married!” I made her repeat my admonition to be sure that she got it. She must have, because she was uncharacteristically silent for a full two minutes. Finally she interrupted and asked, “Can I wear my soccer uniform to your wedding?”
This Sunday’s Gospel selection contained the famous, “Golden Rule” (Matthew 22: 34-40) The words, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” truly are written on every human heart. When you explain “The Golden Rule” to anyone, they instinctively get it. Have you also noticed, however, that like everything else on this planet, “the devil is in the details.” Knowing the Golden Rule, and living it out, are two different things.
The capacity to love your neighbor as yourself is predicated on the ability to get beyond the self to know what the neighbor’s reality is. In her naked narcissism, the five-year-old version of Lizzie entertained, charmed, and mostly beguiled her many conversational colleagues. But if my wife, and me, and all the surrogate aunts, uncles, cousins, and teachers hadn’t provided a bridge from the shores of her developmentally appropriate narcissism to a new place, what was cute at five-year-old, would grow worrisome at ten-years old.
Developmental psychologists have long recognized a healthy narcissism in children. Every three and four-year-old thinks of the world as his or her own private little oyster. For a three and four year old, “Look at me!” is the refrain to their ongoing song. The key ingredient that provides the walkway to the next developmental step: a dedicated care-giver who is willing to be charmed and beguiled, even while providing gentle but firm limits.
It seems to me that the charming little four-year-old in all of us never quite retires. At forty-four, sixty-four, or ninety-four, each of us still longs to stand in the gaze of the delighted onlooker. Each of us thrives in the warm glow of appreciation. Through some sort of divine programming, the human soul tends to take inputs of delight and appreciation, and transforms them into responses that are consistent with the Golden Rule.
This week, would you be willing to live out the Golden Rule in a very specific way? Can you choose to provide thirty-second bursts of delight for some of the four-year-olds in your life, even if they happen to be twenty-four, forty-four, or seventy-four?