In May FDW is hosting a new series on stories from people in all walks of life and their observations of children and what they make us. Click here for more on the series and a list of the contributors. This post was written friend and colleague, Phil Helsel, someone I admire deeply for his commitment to the care of people.
Watching my daughter return from a mall, carrying a little doll that looks like herself, I see something come over her and I’m not sure exactly what it is. It looks like the power of caring. Once we’re home, she asks us to quiet down so the doll can sleep.
This is a girl who surprises us with caring. She wants to take karate and reminds us that she was born in the year of the tiger whenever she feels threatened. Fiesty doesn’t even begin to explain her personality.
But she’s completely invested in caring for this doll and really has become a new person in relationship to it. She changes its diaper. She keeps her fingers clean so she can keep the doll’s clothes in good shape.
This doesn’t feel like a rehearsal for life, a stage in which she’s acting out what she’ll do later perhaps in a fuller form. No, instead even at this moment there’s a fullness to what she’s doing, as if she has learned to care in a mature way, rich beyond its years.
We told her she had to raise the money for the doll herself, so she earned it by sorting toys, selling lemonade at a stand, and creating her own musical album which she sold online. Within two weeks she had made for herself the high sum to pay for the doll, its first set of clothes, and the taxes.
Before she was out of the store I saw this change come over her. It was as if she began to share the doll’s experience right there, making space within the world for it. Instantly she made space for the doll in her life and she imagined herself in the life of the doll.
Our family is in the process of transition and I’ve thought about her care for the doll during this time. When everything in our family’s life seems out of order she has chosen to pour her love into this newly alive thing in her midst. The doll has come to life with her in this moment. It’s as if she has said, “When the going gets rough the love keeps coming.”
During this time of transition I have returned to the habit of playing the piano and found a new composer whose work I admire. I’ve been learning one of this composer’s songs, and I pull out my phone whenever I can and listen to it, allowing its chords to pulse through me and shape the spirit of this time, filling it. When the song is over I can still feel it in the silence, like an aftertaste.
When we feel pulled in multiple directions and when we feel torn between our own needs for self-preservation and the need to care for the world, children remind us to be the kinds of people who playfully care. My daughter reminds me that care is a new status. It is a way of being that changes you in relation to others.
To invite another presence into our space, to listen to them, to imagine what is going on in their mind, to ponder and pour over their music, to change their diaper, is to care. It is putting back together the pieces of a broken world. The serious work we do is play. Play is care. Care means picturing another’s mind. In this time of fragmentation let’s piece each other together through care.
Now the song is in my head again and I think I’ll go play it on the piano.
Phil Browning Helsel is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care and counseling at Boston College. A PCUSA minister and board certified chaplain, father of two and spouse of a homiletician, he wrote his dissertation on fathering and has recently completed a book about ministerial responses to the mental health concerns stemming from poverty entitled Pastoral Power Beyond Psychology’s Marginalization: Resisting the Discourses of the Psy-Complex (Palgrave, October 2015).