Serving Lazarus: Teaching Children Openness to Others’ Needs

Serving Lazarus: Teaching Children Openness to Others’ Needs

Rich Man and Lazarus by Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov (1827–1902), via Wikimedia Commons

Openness and Introversion?

The other day I glanced down at an old Magnifikid from September that one of the kids had left open on a table. It was open to a little multiple choice quiz that asked the child reader to rate his or her openness to other people. I read through the quiz with increasing irritation. All the options in the quiz seemed designed to praise the extrovert and shame the introverted child. And the little evaluation at the end drove it home. The more extroverted choices got a “well done” and the most introverted choices got encouragement that implied the child needs to work at being more open to noticing new people to befriend.

Now when I went back to the beginning of the issue I saw that the quiz was part of a narrative about the day’s Gospel reading about the rich man and Lazarus and was designed to help the children to think about how they could avoid ignoring the needy people they encounter so as not to be like the rich man who ignored Lazarus’ needs. But the problem with the quiz is that the author implicitly assumed that the way to be open to new people is to be a spontaneous extrovert who loves meeting new people. It’s a pattern of thinking I’ve encountered many times, an unconscious assumption: If only you were more like me, you’d be a better person.

The Quiz

1. When you go on vacation, you make sure you don’t forget:
a) a baseball and bat: You can always get a game going!
b) An extra controller for your video game (in case you find others who want to play).
c) Your Gameboy and walkman

(Notice that a book is not one of the options! And Gameboy and walkman? Do kids these days even know what those are?)

2. You are on vacation at the home of one of your cousins, who has decided to have a little party.

a)You’re looking forward to meeting a bunch of people that you don’t know.
b) You think how helpful you could be to your aunt in the kitchen!
c) You find an excuse to get out of the party, since you don’t know any of your cousin’s friends.

3. Your perfect day is when:

a)Nothing goes as you expected.
b) Everything goes as you expected, along with some extra surprises.
c) Everything goes as you expected.

4. You are talking with your friends in the schoolyard. Another kid comes up.
You turn to him and encourage him to join you.
You smile at him, but without saying anything.
c) You are so involved in your conversation that you did not even notice him.

If you have more a)
You are very open to others. You’re not afraid of the unknown, and you love meeting new people. You must have lots of friends who are very happy to know you. Way to go!

If you have more b)
Sometimes you wish your days would go more according to plan, without too many new things. But when you do meet new people, you’re happy and show it. Keep up the good work. You’re on the right track!

If you have more c)
You don’t especially like to meet new people. This disrupts your routine and you don’t like the unexpected. But you certainly have friends and, remember, you had to meet them one day. So don’t deprive yourself of all these future new friends who cross your path each day. Let them come to you!

(Note, I’m tried to translate this quiz which uses shapes, circle, triangle and square to a, b, c format but I think I might have made some transcription errors and assigned the wrong letter to some of the symbols. If so, mea culpa. I can’t find the magazine to double check my work.)

Extroverts Are Good, Introverts Need Work

So basically the message I take from this is that if you’re an extrovert and spontaneous, you’re great; if you’re a little introverted or like to have things planned, you’re ok because you’re more like the cool kids; but if you’re very introverted and uncomfortable with surprises, you really need to work to become more like those spontaneous extroverted people. You aren’t fine the way you are. You aren’t really an open person and open people are good people. I am not amused, Magnifikid. There are so many things wrong with this I don’t even know where to begin.

First, what does any of this have to do with faith? None of these scenarios in the quiz is explicitly tied to the Gospel ideas of identifying those in need and serving them. Instead they focus on tangental aspects of “openness” in a way that doesn’t make the connection clear at all and in fact muddies the water in problematic ways. Are you a better Christian if you’re spontaneous and open to new experiences and like when your day doesn’t go as expected? Or when you’re extroverted and like meeting people? Are you a bad Christian when you are shy or uncomfortable in large groups of new people or like quiet times or like a stable, predictable routine? This is imposing moral value on neutral preferences, on preferences that have to do with personality and temperament not with selfishness. 

And there is room in the Church for all types. Isn’t that what is so beautiful about Catholicism? We have silent retreats and cloistered monasteries and we have the social groups and preaching orders and teaching orders and those who work in hospitals and who do street ministry. There are different charisms and different devotions. The Body has many members. And there are many, many different ways of living out the evangelical counsels and of performing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. 

Oh sure, I can see what the quiz maker was trying to get at, noticing the people around us who are in need. But the quiz is poorly written and assumes an extroverted model for noticing and helping, one that some kids will be comfortable with but others will not. The quiz fails to do what it intends to do and instead unintentionally promotes a terrible message about conformity to a narrow idea of “openness.”

Part of the problem is that the quiz doesn’t make explicit who the person is in each scenario who is in need: Who are we called to be neighbor to? And how are we called to act toward them? Is there more than one possible way to be open to the needs of others? Is there more than one way to tend to the same need?

Many Ways to Serve

My friend Kate points out that in the original Lazarus story in the Gospel there are many different ways to be open/aware of others: “The rich man could have sent a servant to bring Lazarus food. Or he could have come out and talked to him and responded to him personally. Or he could have given him a place in his household. Or he could have given him a place at his table. Or he could have arranged for his care elsewhere. Or he could have just thrown a few coins his way whenever he left his gates. I’m pretty sure ANY of those responses would have spared him the punishment in the parable. The point is that he ignored all of the precepts of the prophets and scriptures to care for the poor even though there was an opportunity in front of him every day.

None of us, regardless of personality, are exempt from the commandment to love others and to serve Christ in each person. But that can look very different.”

Packing for a vacation has no necessary connection with openness to others. I can fill my bag with books and pop in my headphones and still be sensitive to the needs of other people. It’s nice that some kids are ready to play ball with strangers at a moment’s notice or bring along games hoping to find new friends, but finding new friends isn’t really the same thing as noticing the Lazarus at our door, is it? I mean it can be, but that has to do more with an interior disposition to look for lonely children who need a friend. The child who packs without a thought to making new friends on vacation, could still be very open to helping others in need, it’s just that she is open to different ways of interacting with people or looking for different ways to serve others. And the child who brings the ball could just as easily be guilty of overlooking the lonely kid on the playground to hang out with the big noisy group of popular kids. 

For an introvert a party full of new people might be overwhelming, but perhaps you could make it a goal to find one person who looks lonely and to befriend them. Or as the quiz sort of suggests, you could focus on hospitality, making sure people have food and drink, helping in the kitchen. The problem with the way the quiz presents the parts is that to the introvert the option of running away because of all those strangers might be the most attractive one and it’s not necessarily wrong to indulge that desire to go off by yourself. In fact, there’s quite a long Christian tradition of seeking solitude. Instead of shaming the child for the desire to avoid the crowd, we could perhaps instead focus on helping kids who don’t want to be at the party to find other ways of being open to others that are more in keeping with their personality and talents.

Some people like routines and plans, some people like to be more spontaneous. Both kinds of people can be caring and compassionate and open to the needs of others. I suppose I can see where the quiz author is imagining a scenario where the child is unwilling to help someone else because it would entail a break in his routine that makes him uncomfortable, but it isn’t our level of comfort that makes us open to stepping out to help others, but our willingness to put our own desires aside to die to self. It might be a bigger sacrifice for the child who loves her routine to walk a new classmate home instead of walking by herself, but she might do it anyway. Her personal preferences in no way predict her ability or willingness to serve the stranger and a quiz which implies that the inclination itself is a negative in the quest to be open to others does no service to the child.

Finally, in the last scenario the author implies the person who is so involved in the conversation that he doesn’t notice the new guy walking up is less open to allowing the new guy into the conversation. What really bothers me is the wording “not notice.” It’s not about openness or willingness, it’s about perception, temperament. Are you the kind of person who notices the larger world around you or are you the person who hyperfocuses on the person in front of you? Why is one implicitly morally superior to the other? Deliberately ignoring someone is definitely a step in the wrong direction, but failing to see them isn’t something most people can control. Implying that it is shames those who are different, who are less aware.

I like Magnifikid. It has served us well for many years, presenting both Mass prayers and readings in an easily accessible format for children. (I would prefer fewer games and more fine art, but on the whole their content is really helpful. This complaint is not a general complaint about the magazine, but a complaint only about this one issue. What I wish Magnifikid had done in this issue was to present the reader with scenarios that showed how children with different temperaments could notice those in need in their daily life. From helping mom set the table every night to helping a brother or sister find a missing shoe to sitting in companionable silence with another child at lunch time, two children reading their books together instead of trying to fit in with the noisy crowd, there are plenty of ways introvert children and those who prefer plans and routines can help the people in front of them.

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