Families, Children & Marriage, Restoration & Reconciliation

Talking to my five-year-old about war

I woke up last night gripped by a deep fear. Unfortunately, such occurrences are somewhat common for me. Sometimes, the fears are completely irrational because I am over tired or stressed – Monkeys chasing me through a house of mirrors, my foot turning into a giant piece of chocolate. Sometimes, like last night, the fears are more rational.

A few days ago, my five-year-old daughter asked me if people have guns in Sri Lanka.

“Yes.” I replied, which was followed by an inevitable why? “Well, because there’s a war going on there .” (We’d not yet told them about the war because they’d never asked.)

Another why.

“Because people are angry with each other.”

“Are Aththa and Seeya [her grandparents] angry?” she asked.

“No, they’re not part of the people who are fighting. They’re just living their normal lives there, like most of the other people.”

As we continued to look at the book we were reading about Sri Lanka, we came across a picture of a hardened teenage rebel carrying a gun. It made me sad, as it always does. Then it made me a bit angry that there are children who have no choice but to know war, and teenagers forced to be terrorists due to a lack of other options. We finished the book excited about seeing the train that we’ll ride to Kandy to see Ammamma (their great-grandmother) and the beautiful beaches we’ll walk on the next time we visit.

Our conversation lingered in my subconscious for awhile, and last night, when I woke up, it made me afraid. Visions of strange diseases, suicide bombings, AK-47s and checkpoints shake my naïve mid-western upbringing. In more awake moments this morning, I can pinpoint that the cause of middle-of-the-night fears stems from a loss of control. When we visit Sri Lanka, I am far more acutely aware of my inability to control (and even understand) the situations around me than I am in my comfortably tiny small town.

Aside from slight boredom, the surface reality of our current small-town home is wind blowing through our trees, fish lounging in our pond, families enjoying slow walks. Such details lull me into a false sense of security that I’m able to control my environment. However, beneath the surface of this place lie plenty of stories which extend far beyond my control. With high poverty rates and low education rates, our county houses great gaps between the haves and the have-nots. The haves live in oblivion to the have-nots. The have-nots live with spite toward the haves. Teenage pregnancy and drop-out rates are high. Racism and classism are palatable yet completely unacknowledged by the majority of the population. (Sadly, it is also glorified by a few through bumper stickers and flag wavings.)

Because of the familiarity of these stories, they do not strike me in the same way as the details of a country at declared-war. However, when I sit with the stories, I’m forced to face their reality. When I’m in Sri Lanka, it boggles my mind that much of the urban population simply goes on with life, numb to the frightening details that awaken me in the middle of the night. And yet, after I’m there for awhile, I feel the numbness a bit as well. Strange as it may sound, there’s a distinctly different feel to such situations viewed from up close. I cannot say they are any less scarier than what we see from afar in the media, but somehow, they are far more real.

So this is where my dilemma arises. What do I do with both my fears of the unfamiliar and my numbness toward the familiar? I turn to Scripture for guidance, and the first verses which appear readily speak the words, “Fear not. I am with you.” and “Care for the stranger among you.”

Nice words, but they don’t really blot out images of teenagers with machine guns, child soldiers and pregnant women in suicide mode. While I understand that God’s words are a promise to me, the details of how to apply them blur significantly when my brown-skinned husband fears stopping for gas in the overtly-racist-town-next-door and my undocumented neighbors silently suffer without any ability to seek help.

Yesterday, someone commented to me that he’d been fascinated to hear my husband and I share on a panel on interracial marriage. “My wife and I come from such similar backgrounds,” he told me. “I’d never even imagined what kind of dynamics people could face.”

I smiled, grateful that he’d seen value in taking the time to listen to someone with a different experience. I also felt, as I always do when I hear similar comments, the deep reaffirming call of God on our lives to living between worlds. I don’t always know how to navigate the stark differences in our lives, but I suspect we’re a tiny part of a much bigger picture of reconciliation that I simply cannot yet see.

If any of you have worked through navigating different worlds or read books that have helped you along the way, I’d love to hear about them. It would also be interesting to hear about the specifics of how you’ve learned about to “fear not” in times that throw you outside your comfort zones.

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4 thoughts on “Talking to my five-year-old about war”

  1. Yes – we’ve taken them before – my daughter (who’s 5) has been 3 times, and my son (3) has gone just once. I think I’ve been about 4 times.

    Glad to hear there are comfort zones in cities… I used to live in DC and clearly remember that – different, but equally distracting and numbing (though perhaps slightly more fun 😉

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  2. My kids are 4 and 16 months. Yes, I haven’t had to really face those fears. My parents had to, but I was a child then, really, and just went along for the ride.

    BTW, there are comfort zones in cities too! 🙂

    Have you ever visited there before?

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  3. I’m glad to hear other people have felt the same way! Since most of my husband’s family still lives there, it’s fairly non-negotiable for us if we want our kids to know them. You’re right, it really pushes me out of any comfort zones I have (which is actually good because there are far too many comfort zones in small towns…)

    How old are your kids?

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  4. Hmm. Thought-provoking as always. My parents faced those fears when we returned to Sri Lanka for the first time since the conflict escalated in the eighties. I grapple with that fear every time we consider taking our children to visit (we haven’t actually visited yet because all my family have left Sri Lanka).
    I don’t know what the answer is, but I know that times like these (when I’m out of my comfort zone) make me lean on God in a way that I wouldn’t normally.

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