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Parenting Series: Is Teaching Hope a Good Thing?

Weeks ago I ranted a critique of “hope” in Hope (part 1). My children, to my chagrin, are frequent flyers on hope’s wings. Have I failed to teach them to embrace the present rather than pine for what’s ahead? Instead of proactive designers of their destiny, are they learning to be victims, limply hoping for change down the pike?
I hope not. (Whoops.)
Maybe I’m the one failing to learn what my children are trying to show me about hope.
I did promise to share some kid stories that help me question my questions about the value of hope. Here is one.
We came home tonight to a jaybird dying on the porch. It lay there, just under the motion-sensitive light, moving too little for me to notice, but enough to give hope to the one daughter still awake.
Brielle wanted to save it.
“It will be just fine if we take care of it, Daddy. What do blue jays eat?”
“Brielle, blue jays eat other baby birds and the eggs of other birds. They’re not really a very nice kind of bird.” I was tired. A smear campaign against the species sounded easier than offering emergency veterinary services.
Brielle was shocked but quiet. The little birdie clawing the air on the porch looked too harmless to be an infanticidal egg thief.
I saw the harshness of my tack reflected in her eyes, felt its sting, and softened my approach. “Brielle, it’s probably the same one that smacked against our window yesterday. It probably is blind and won’t be able to live very long without its sight.”
“Daddy, why are blue jays not nice to other blue jays?”
“Brielle, you know, God didn’t make animals smart enough to know what is nice. They just know they need to eat and they try to find food even if they have to do not-nice things to get it. So they’re not being ‘not-nice,’ they’re just trying to eat.”
She liked this. Not guilty by reason of low IQ. “So the birdie doesn’t know it’s not nice to eat other birds’ eggs. I think the birdie ate other birds’ eggs and then it thought it would fly and then it hit our house and got blind and now it won’t steal any other birdies’ eggs.”
This wasn’t working.
“Brielle, you know, if this birdie dies, two good things could happen. One thing is that another hungry animal will eat it and be happy it found some food.” There was that stinging, shocked look again. I hate causing that look in her eyes, even when I do it by telling the truth. “Or, if another animal doesn’t eat it, its body will go into the ground and help other plants and trees grow because they will use the vitamins that were in the birdie’s body.”
”Daddy, maybe we can give it some water. And an egg. Maybe blue jays are not nice to other blue jays. But they are pretty sweet to us. It looked sweet and nice.”
She was right. It was a beautiful bird. Helpless. Beyond the need for judgment–guilty, not guilty…nice, not nice. At our mercy.
And truth is, resigned as I was to this creature’s place in the food chain, the inevitability of its downward slide on the circle of life, I didn’t like being out there watching it die. Euthanasia was probably the nicest thing I could have done, but even if I’d had the strength to do this, I lacked a way to do it so Brielle wouldn’t know, or a way to explain it to her if she did.
I grabbed an egg from its cardboard carton in the fridge. I filled a ketchup cap with water. Together, we went out to the still bird, set the egg and water a couple feet away on the porch. We found a stick and gently pushed them right next to the bird, urging our desperate offering toward its beak. It fluttered, and settled down again.
“Maybe the birdie will get some rest, wake up and drink the water and eat. Maybe it will fly away and be OK tomorrow,” I offered, wanting this to be true perhaps as much as Brielle wanted to believe I was telling the truth.
We both dared to hope. And our hope moved us to merciful action.
At 11:30 I heard the bird shriek. I ran across the room to see a hungry raccoon finishing the job that I lacked the courage to do. Masked and nonchalant, the raccoon dragged the jay–along with our egg–under the porch and finished off both.
Even if Brielle finds out what happened to the bird (and you BETTER not tell her), I think she will agree with me on this: I am glad she hoped. Because her hope moved me from tired resignation to actually doing something, however small, for a needy member of creation. And that moved both of us from guilt and complicity with the darkness into a place where we offered a sort of light.
Whatever the outcome, we both felt better having hoped, having tried.
Michael Bennie writes from California’s San Bernardino mountains, where he and his wife, Rachelle, parent their 5-year-old, Brielle, and twin 3-year-olds, Melía and Ashlyn. In his down time, he is a 9th-grade school counselor. He vaguely remembers having hobbies of his own before the princess proliferation, but still squeezes in audio books, a tiny men’s Bible study (which, surprisingly, includes no tiny men), dates with Rachelle, random hikes, Daddy blogging (where this essay was first published), a spring marathon and a fall 3-day novel.

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