A Strange Kindness

Every parent I know has a bevy of “first day of school” pictures. There’s the son in front of the house, squinting against the morning light with a sleepy smile, feet tied-up in knock-off shoes purchased at a palatable price. And there’s the daughter, grinning with shoulders slumped under a stuffed backpack – though it’s not quite as stuffed as it could be, since she’s refused to tuck away her favorite folder with the cat in the sunglasses. (That she proudly holds in front of her as she says, “Cheese.”) They’re wonderful pictures, but I wonder: What would Mom and Dad have looked like if the camera had been turned on them that morning? I suspect we’d spy a hint of fear in Mom’s eyes and some hesitation just at the corners of Dad’s smile. Because school – the world – can be a cruel place. Dad knows it’s only a matter of time before some bully brings attention to the imitation footwear, and Mom knows right around the corner from her daughter is a gal who will relish the opportunity to turn up her nose and point out to all the other little girls that “cats don’t wear sunglasses.” Dad and Mom both know the day after the first day, it will take an hour to get out the door as the son argues the merits of a more benign pair of flip flops, and that folder with the cat won’t be anywhere near the daughter, but rather hidden on the bedroom shelf, if not torn in two and placed in some bedroom trashcan. Take a picture on that second day in, and you’ll spot tears in the eyes of the little ones – and in the eyes of the bigger ones, too, should the camera get turned on them once more.

If we’re honest with one another, you and I would just assume keep our sons and daughters (or grandchildren or nieces and nephews) as far as possible from the battles that unfold on a daily basis. The only thing that keeps us from doing just that is the cost we know comes in our withholding them – the loss of the strength, the wisdom, the grace that will help them partner with God in the winning of far worse battles to come.

Should my reading schedule hold, right around this time next week I’ll start The Last Battle, the last of “The Chronicles of Narnia.” I really don’t know how many times I’ve made my way through Lewis’s series, but this much I know: The last time I did, I was not yet a father. Reading it now with a seven-year-old daughter just down the hall from me has been more challenging than I could have ever anticipated. It’s funny: When I first read this series as a child, I was thrilled to read of kids my age stepping through a magical wardrobe to battle witches who stir nothing but winter, or dwarfs that are open to using evil to defeat evil (which will instead result in the defeat of good), or enormous sea serpents who can lazily crush a boat if they like. But reading it now as a parent, I’m half-inclined to rail against Lewis for his literary choice to send children into the cruelty of it all. But note I’m only half-inclined, because in the end, I’m thankful for the parenting lesson he (perhaps) inadvertently offers.

The further along you get in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” – and the further along you get in the series as a whole – the harder it is to remember what Peter, Susan, Edmond, and Lucy were like when you first met them. They were exactly as young children and teens are: Self-absorbed, divisive, unforgiving, and even unbelieving. But by the end they are much more selfless, peace-making, forgiving, believing. All the difference is made, of course, by a trip through a magical wardrobe in the unlocked room of an old professor the children are staying with for the summer. Actually, think further back than that: All the difference is made because someone in authority – that old professor who owned the unlocked room and the wardrobe itself, charged by the children’s mother to serve as their father figure for the summer – he was willing to let the kids step through the wardrobe, even if he did so with no small amount of fear and trembling and perhaps even a few tears in his eyes. Off he let them go into the cruelty of battle, where they would lose a few rounds, battle again, and win. Off he lets them go not simply to battle, but to grow. It’s a fun little detail that they quite literally grow into adults on “Narnia time,” only to return once more as children – but children carrying within them what amounts to years’ worth of strength, wisdom, and grace fitfully won through a handful of battles.

It’s a real kindness on the professor’s part, isn’t it – to let them step through into battle? The blood that’s lost makes it a strange kindness, but a kindness nonetheless. When all is said and done and counted up, the least amount of kindness the old professor could have ever done is to have kept the room locked, and with it, the wardrobe, and with it, the world, even in all its darkness. There’s really no other way to make men and women of the Lion.