Yesterday morning, I was chatting with a colleague. After a few minutes of small talk, she inquired, “May I ask about your arm?”
I was born with one arm, I explained, so I have lived my whole life as an amputee. It has posed some challenges, but I have adapted and found ways to accomplish whatever I need to do. I closed by joking, “It makes a great ice-breaker with six-year-olds, though!”
Yesterday afternoon, I was out walking with my husband and infant son when we passed a house with four children playing in the front yard. They ran down to the street to greet us, and the first words out of one girl’s mouth were, “How did you break your arm?”
Me: “I was just born with one arm. I didn’t break it.”
Child 1: “Oh.”
Child 2: “We thought maybe you had been attacked by a shark, like in that movie!”
Me: “No shark attack, though that would be an exciting story. I was born with one arm.”
Child 3: “Yeah, somebody said it got bitten off by a shark!”
By this time, another half dozen children had arrived from the backyard to participate in the discussion.
Child 4: “Was your hand bit off by a shark?”
Child 1: “It wasn’t a shark attack, she was just born with one arm.”
Child 5: “I TOLD them you were born with one arm, but they didn’t BELIEVE me.”
Child 6: “Will it ever grow back?”
Child 7: “Does it hurt?”
Me: “No, it doesn’t hurt, and it won’t grow back. This is just how I am.”
Child 6: “Okay.”
And, with a few adoring pats of my son’s head, they all went back to playing.
Children have a wonderful propensity for combining their observations of the world with curiosity and bluntness. They haven’t yet absorbed what adults call “tact,” or, in other words, “the effort to avoid asking personal questions at all costs for fear of giving offense or pointing out potentially uncomfortable differences between people.”
This is a gift. It allows us to talk about our differences and understand each other. Those children were not malicious or rude; they were curious. They saw something they didn’t understand and wanted to know more.
One of my convictions as a Lutheran is that all people are, in one way or another, broken. Some of this brokenness is our doing: through greed or impatience or pride. Often, we are broken through no fault of our own: through disease, through the words or actions of others, through accidents of our birth.
What if we learned to talk about those many ways of brokenness the same way children talk about limb difference? When I walk down the street, everyone can see that I have one arm. They are curious, and they want to understand. Those children were concerned for me, wanting to know if my arm would grow back, or if it hurt to have one arm.
Could we learn from those children how to talk about disease, divorce, or drug addiction? Could we, with curiosity and compassion, ask if it hurt? Could we be prepared to admit that we are broken together, and that only when we are broken in community can we really be whole together? We may not be able to see others’ brokenness just by looking at them, but maybe that’s what makes it all the more important to have people like me around as a reminder that not one of us is perfect.
Shark attacks are exciting. They get adrenaline pumping and evoke a strong emotional response.
Being born with one arm, well, it’s kind of dull in comparison. But it’s who I am. It’s how God made me. And for me, it’s even more exciting to be treated with curiosity and compassion by neighborhood kids than to have a news-worthy story. It helps me remember that we are, all of us, made in the image of God. It reminds me that all of us, whether we look “broken” or not, have a story to tell and questions to ask.
So ask. Ask with curiosity and compassion, knowing that you are asking someone to share their brokenness with you.
And tell. Tell with hope and boldness, trusting that your story of brokenness may make someone else’s whole.
That sounds exciting to me.