After five years of interviewing adults about their childhood spiritual experiences, I’ve seen common threads. Here’s one: As children, they didn’t have the vocabulary to express how they were processing spirituality and God. Can’t you see it in what this man told me?
“I remember I was four or five years old and feeding white ducks bread crumbs from the top of a playground slide. It seemed very wonderful to me for some reason and I dreamed about it and I can still see myself doing it. My thoughts couldn’t have been very abstract or sophisticated or articulated in any vocabulary I had at the time, but I felt I was in the presence of something greater than myself, in a world beyond the surface world where I was tossing down food onto the white ducks and feeling very whole, free, peaceful.”
With two nieces on top-ranked college volleyball teams (Hawaii and UCLA) I sat in a lot of gyms watching serves and returns.
Psychologists sometimes use the term “serve and return parenting” to refer to face-to-face, back-and-forth interactions between caregivers and their babies. Science Journalist Paul Tough observes that these interactions create secure attachments and they motivate a child’s enthusiasm in practicing social interaction, speech and language.
But I also observe the same serve and return dynamics in the development of human spirituality, sparking growth in conscience and character.
Children experience the calm in the inner space of their human spirit that they need to incubate perseverance, tenacity, and the other significant character qualities. These character qualities then carry over into their everyday life.
My friends Laura and Mamitte (not their real names) were having coffee at Mamitte’s apartment while their 7-year-old boys and a neighbor boy played in the courtyard. Mamitte walked out to check on them and discovered that they had smashed a bunch of snails. She said to them, “Oh, I am so saddened by this,” and returned to the apartment to figure out, along with Laura, what to do about it.
What’s really important, they decided, is the greater lesson of how we treat creatures.
When both women went outside, the boys began to play “he said/she said” about who actually smashed and who watched. But Mamitte asked them if they were willing to gather the snails’ bodies and put them to rest in God’s earth. The boys said they were willing to participate.