Dear Donagh,

…. The other day when I was correcting my 12 year old son about the way he speaks to people he said “don’t you be telling me what to do, we’re equal.”  I took it as an example of his usual cheeky way of talking but the more I think about it the more disturbed I get.  I brought up the matter with him yesterday and I said, “We’re not equal, I'm your mother!”  but it was like a foreign language to him.  I heard him saying the same thing in relation to a teacher.  I know that he’s just repeating what he hears, but it strikes me as very wrong headed in some way.  Inequality sounds like a crime, but how could everyone be equal?  As I say, I'm his mother.  A mother and her child are not equal.  My husband says just to ignore it, that he’s just being a typical kid of today, but I'm upset by it in some way that I can't put my finger on.  Could you throw some light on it for me?  I read your blog most days.  Thanks for your help.  Joan

Dear Joan,

I think you answered your own question brilliantly: “We’re not equal, I'm your mother.”  I suspect that there isn't a mother in the world who would disagree with you.  They all have too many memories of carrying, then birthing, then feeding and changing and washing that morsel of life that couldn’t survive 24 hours without them. 

Everything and everyone has to be equal now: that's the ideology of the day.  There's a decent impulse behind it.  All human beings, as human beings, have equal dignity.  Consequently they have an equal right to life, and to fair treatment from the rest of society.  But this does not wipe out the differences between one person and another.  That would be downright violence.  There’s that story from ancient Greece about Prometheus.  He had a special bed for the use of guests.  When a guest was shorter than the bed he would stretch them to fit, and when a guest was longer he would chop off his feet.  I heard a milder version of this.  A novice mistress in a convent in the 1940s couldn’t live with the fact that her novices were all of different height, so she had the carpenter make a number of boxes for them to stand on: the shortest had a tall box, and the tallest had no box at all.  The in-between ones had boxes of such a height that all of the novices looked equal as they stood in the choir.  The spirit of equality can easily become the spirit of uniformity   Prometheus’s bed has become a symbol of it.  

By contrast, St Paul wrote: “We are God's work of art” (Ephesians 2:10).  And, as Brendan Behan said, “It is only an auctioneer who could equally and impartially admire all schools of art.”  To an auctioneer art is not art, but a saleable commodity.  Likewise, if human beings were all equal in every way they would no longer be really human, they would not be God's work of art, they would be like factory-made commodities. 

Fair treatment is not the same as equal treatment.  Let’s call in the ancients again (because I’m getting rather ancient myself).  Here’s part of a poem by Chuang Tzu (interpreted by Thomas Merton), 3rd century BC:

Have you not heard how a bird from the sea
Was blown inshore and landed
Outside the capital of Lu?

The Prince ordered a solemn reception,
Offered the sea bird wine in the sacred precinct,
Called for musicians
To play the compositions of Shun,
Slaughtered cattle to nourish it….

Dazed with symphonies, the unhappy sea bird
Died of despair.

How should you treat a bird?
-  As yourself
Or as a bird? 

How should you treat your son: as your equal or as your son?  If it’s any consolation to you, Joan, you can tell yourself that many ancient writers approve your instinct and support your point of view!  Of course that won't cut any ice with your son.  The real authorities for kids now are pop idols.  Isn't it ironic that in this age that makes such shrill demands for equality we also have a frenzied cult of celebrity?  12-year-olds don’t think that their pop idols are just the same as themselves.  No, they elevate them to a semi-divine state.  So when your son goes on about everyone being equal, ask him why he hasn’t secured a place for himself with One Direction, to replace the one who has just left. 

This conflict between equality and celebrity must have a deadening effect on young people.  It is an unresolved ambiguity about their identity.  I suppose this conflict has always been part of humanity to some degree, but today there are countless electronic devices that keep pushing it in their faces day and night.  Where are the individual spirits, the originals, the characters, the people who look through their own eyes?  Let me tell you a story.  A school teacher in Kerry began to suspect that one of the children was copying his essays – one, certainly, or perhaps two boys.   So she put them at opposite sides of the classroom and told them to write a short essay on… on the swallow (she had just noticed a swallow flying past the window).  After a while she looked at what they had written.  “The swallow is a migratory bird,” wrote the first boy.  She checked the other one: “The swallow do have a roundy head.”  Then she said crossly to the first boy: “You’re a copycat for sure!  You just repeat what you read in an encyclopaedia.”  And to the second boy she said, “Good man yourself!  I see that you looked at swallows with your own eyes and wrote down what you saw.  Keep on doing that and you will become a great man and a great writer.” 

You could try that story on your son, Joan, and see what happens.  

A last word.  Equality, we must believe, is better than inequality.  But I think it is only slightly better.    When we see people simply as equal we are seeing them as separate beings – equal but separate.  Now if that isn't an invitation to competition, what is?  It makes you think of a row of runners on their marks.  It is instinctive for people to compete; even small children are extremely keen on it.  Separate beings in competition, all of them warned that none should come first – that's not a credible ideal.  Equality in that situation would be a truce, but not a secure or long-lasting one: five minutes would be a long time.  I think the ideal is something better than equality; it is unity.  We are called by our faith to be one with one another, as members of Christ’s body.  There’s no danger of uniformity in this (no need to bring in a carpenter) because all the parts of a body are allowed (even required) to be different, though they are one body.  St Paul (another ancient): “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ (1 Corinthians 12:21).  “As in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members of one another" (Romans 12:4-5). 

I'm sorry, Joan, that I went on a bit too long.  Take care. 


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