Who is my neighbor?

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Ash Wednesday I was visiting a large urban area on business. The church I visited had a Lenten theme of “Who is my neighbor?” I smiled as I remembered a young boy in Faith Formation. We had been studying the “Our Father.” We had easily covered “Forgive us our trespasses.” We were moving to the latter half, “As we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” I had told him the one characteristic that had set early Christians apart from their world was loving one’s enemies. He asked me if I were sure. 

Recognizing his question was more about the possibility of living that way as opposed to historical accuracy, I gently told him that the idea was as shocking then as it was today. Yet, that is what Jesus had challenged each of us to find a way to do. We were called to love our neighbor as ourselves. We clarified that loving one’s enemies most definitely did not mean letting people walk all over them. As he is a young child beginning his journey of understanding of this mystery, we also left it at the person who did the hurt apologized. Then, one was called to forgive and love one’s former enemy. 

We would end our sessions with him drawing a picture of what we had studied. As he sketched a school situation of someone choosing to love another who had hurt him, my mind reviewed the scourge of classroom bullies.

In school I had been a shy kid who liked to read. There was this one class where, every time I relaxed, this classmate would jab me with her pencil. I remember one day the teacher demanding to know why I disrupted her class. I stared at her in disbelief. 

I forgave the bully, but never forgot that teacher. As an educator, I made my classroom a “kingdom of kindness.” I had the positive messages about finding out how special one’s neighbor was and appreciating him or her for the unique person he or she was. I also had the “not on my watch” vigilance against bullying. 

At a residential summer program for gifted students, my teaching assistant let me know two girls were bullying this other girl. Stunned, I realized I had failed to protect all my students. To make a long story short, eventually the two girls doing the abusing were dismissed. 

From this experience three images remained with me. First, the mother of one dismissed girl letting me know that she was going to have a long talk with her daughter. Second, the main bully sitting alone in a chair. A secretary was on the way as neither parent would come for her. Finally, after the bullies left, the other student was a new and different person in class. The transformation was amazing. She made me two origami birds. One bird is larger than the other. To me they symbolized the importance of watching out for all of those within my care. 

A number of years later there was another bullying situation. The actual bullying was happening outside my classroom. I read every anti-bullying publication available. With the victim and her mother’s permission, I made the bully and victim lab partners. The girl who had been victimized had a special hand signal. If she gave that signal, I’d separate them instantly.

I honestly had the hardest time the first few times I headed over to their group to give each of them praise. When I looked at that bully at first all I could see was the pain and hurt she had brought. My gut instinct was to protect others from her, not to cuddle her. However, the image of that other child alone on a chair reminded me of the importance of continuing. 

Perhaps even more important than the science was the support and praise I gave each student. I marveled at how the bully and former victim each were finding a new friend. I had the bully’s former right-hand person as my special science helper. I wondered if I had done all that I could. 

In my mind, I again saw the teen-age me standing before my teacher. This time, though, I imagined perhaps she was wondering what to do. I realized that her answer no longer mattered. I had found within forgiveness and peace. 

The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15: 11-32) reminds us that God’s unconditional love is infinite for each and every one of His children. The true depth and peace of the love received is made manifest only when the older brother chooses to move past his pride and stubbornness to join in the celebration for his returned brother. Jesus’ call to live loving our enemies (Mt 5:44) is a work in progress for us all. However, it is truly an invitation to experience and live God’s love more deeply in our lives. 

Anchor columnist Dr. Helen J. Flavin is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer.


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