It was the week before Christmas, and Mareto was three years old. His Awana class was building gingerbread houses, a project intended to be very easy for the children.
A small cardboard house was given to each of the kids, along with their supplies: graham crackers, frosting, a plastic knife, and various bowls of candy. All they had to do was spread some frosting on the cardboard house, place the crackers over that, spread more frosting around, and plop candy on top. Easy. Well . . . easy for everyone else.
I knelt by Mareto’s chair and whispered the first step to him: “Let’s spread some frosting on the house, buddy!”
He looked at me, confused but interested, as I scooped some frosting out of the can with his knife. I handed it to him, but he didn’t know what to do with it. So I did what comes naturally for us as a team: I placed my hand over his and manually guided him through the task. A little while later the goopy frosting was dripping from the house.
We went through each step until we got to the last one. I encouraged him enthusiastically, “This is the best part, Mareto! You can stick candy anywhere on this house! Go crazy!”
He grinned and reached for some gumdrops. A minute later he sat back, satisfied. There were about twelve red gumdrops all on one side of the roof. I gushed over his house, telling him how beautiful it looked and how he’d done a great job. He was proud, and it was a sweet little Christmas memory shared by the two of us.
Until the little girl across the table spoke up. “Why is he so dumb?”
The words hung in the air over the table as I stared back, trying to process what this little blonde-haired three- year-old girl had just asked me. Somehow I stammered out, “Ww-what?”
“Why is he so dumb?” she repeated, giving Mareto a look that I can only describe as a mixture of pity and disgust. I was stunned.
I finally stammered out that he simply made his house the way he liked it, and that certain tasks are harder for him than they are for other children—but that he is not dumb at all.
She grew tired of the conversation and went back to rearranging the candies on her roof.
When I looked down at Mareto, there was a golf ball– sized lump in my throat—but he was smiling across the table at the little girl who had just called him dumb. He looked at her little gingerbread house, then back up at her, and said, “Pretty!”
She smiled back and said, “Thanks! I like yours too.”
I cried later that night after I tucked Mareto into bed, but somehow I knew he was going to be okay. The world might not always be kind to him, but he would be kind to the world . . . and teach everyone what love looks like.
I want to be more like Mareto.
My first instinct in the face of meanness isn’t love; it’s self-defense. And sometimes self-defense looks a bit like hurting someone else the way they’ve hurt us, doesn’t it? The process always entails someone hurting me, me hurting them, and both of us walking away angry, resentful, bitter, and maybe a bit ashamed. Hurt keeps on filtering through everyone until someone stops it.
Someone has to be brave enough, or innocent enough, to swallow his or her pride and respond in love. Love changes the trajectory of life.We don’t have to know someone’s story to love them well. It should be enough to remember that they have a story, just as we do.
Hurt people hurt people. And we’re all hurting. There’s only one answer that can break the cycle: love. Love holds us together, heals wounds, restores relationships, and changes things. The whole world hinges on us responding in love.