Cain's snarky question to God misses the point.
I remember reading somewhere the observation that early on in the Bible, Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” – and God spends the rest of the book answering that very question.
Of all the spiritual formation my pack of howling savages need (no, they literally are howling savages – at this very moment, they’re yelling and running around the living room wearing only bathrobes and their left shoes), the understanding that we are our brother’s keeper is not one of them. This metaphysical truth, which is a bitter pill for some people to swallow, is just as obvious to my children as the nose on your face.
“I think Jude needs to share, otherwise he’s going to get hurt,” was the alarming phrase I heard the other day while drying my hair. I turned off the blow dryer, and looked at my eight year-old with concern.
“Share what?” I asked. “The package of Gummi bears?” My son nodded.
“Baby, that’s not how genuine sharing works. If Jude doesn’t want to share, he doesn’t have to. It would be nice, but if he doesn’t consent, what you’re proposing is stealing. And threatening him by telling him he’s going to get hurt if he doesn’t share is not the way to convince him, either.”
My son looked at me blankly for a minute. Silence stretched out in the bathroom, and I wondered if I could turn my hair dryer back on yet. Then a light bulb went off over my son’s head.
“Oh. Oh! No, I’m not going to hurt him. He’s going to hurt himself because he’s not sharing.”
Sometimes being a parent is less about mothering and more about sleuthing. “What? What are you talking about?”
“Well, he keeps taking the Gummi bears, licking the back of them, then sticking them onto the glass front of the gas fire. When they’re spitty and burned, then he offers them to us. But the glass is really hot, and there’s black marks all over it from the Gummi bears. I’m afraid he’s going to burn himself and set the house on fire.”
Truly looking after his brother, that one is. And the fireplace glass. And the Gummi bears.
All my kids are great at looking after each other’s bodily safety. They’ll accompany each other 40 feet up the hemlock tree in the backyard “just in case”. They’ll build up massive leaf piles under the zip line to offer cushioning. They’ll happily offer to help clean a sibling’s room, even when it means leaving their own messy room to do so.
But they don’t just stop there. They’re also deeply concerned about each other’s spiritual welfare, too. Examinations of conscience are always thorough when you have five other people helpfully reminding you of your transgressions. The finer points of theology are easier to grasp if your older siblings help illustrate them with Lego diagrams and Doctor Who analogies.
One particularly hectic Sunday, we tumbled into 5 o’clock Mass deeply grateful that we’d made it – and maybe a little bit prideful that we weren’t the last ones in. My oldest, who was nine at the time, was extremely fidgety. Unable to settle down, she kept trying to do interpretive dances during the hymns, flinging her arms high in the air, and knocking against her four year-old brother repeatedly. I gave her the stink eye. Nothing. I hiss-yelled at her. Still, the squirrelly behavior continued. I considered tying her hands together with my scarf, but I figured it would be more distracting than the arm waving.
Mass ended, and as I gathered up coats, teeth gritted and desperately praying to the Holy Spirit to let me get to the van before yelling at Little Miss Wavy Arms, I saw my four year old – the one who had endured 60 minutes of octogirl – gently take his older sister’s hand, lead her over to the statue of Mary, and point to the prie-dieu in front. Without a word, my daughter sunk to her knees, and spent a few moments in prayer.