Rules of Play

Friday, October 22nd, 2010

It’s been hard not to think about suicide lately — the act of it, in isolation and, seemingly, incredible despair.

The gay teenagers who killed themselves recently, in acts of private surrender, have made a collective public statement, but what is that statement . . . other than “something’s wrong”?

Whatever is wrong hits the young LGBT community with ferocity, but doesn’t confine itself to that community. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. — evidence of a system backing up on itself.

The young people who are on the other side of the trouble — the bullies and the bystanders — do not, for the most part, act with an independence of malice. They are channeling a cultural certainty far beyond their own reckoning: that some traits, such as shyness, clumsiness, glasses, whatever, are unacceptable. And they reap social approval for weeding out the losers and oddballs, so long, of course, as nothing goes embarrassingly wrong — because as a society, this is what we do. We weed people out. We dehumanize individuals and groups. Any sort of anomaly will do as a pretext. It’s as American as apple pie.

“Why,” asked journalist and former Washington Post columnist Colman McCarthy, “are we violent but not illiterate?” The question contains the answer. We have failed to address, systemically, the roots of our violent behavior. I believe the collective public statement of the young gays who have so recently taken their lives — whose faces and stories, which have now spread across the Internet, sear our consciences — is precisely this: Do not dehumanize anyone.

Forgive us, Lord. We know not what we do.

To put it another way: “It takes a certain social norm to support bullying.” So said Dr. Carl C. Bell, president of the Chicago-based Community Mental Health Council, who was quoted in a 2008 article on bullying in the journal Behavioral Pediatrics. The simple, seeming obviousness of this statement belies its enormity.

Changing this norm may be the most complex social problem we can take on: creating public spaces — beginning with our schools — that are, you might say, profoundly welcoming, that are open to everyone’s deepest wholeness and truth. This sort of openness is more than a matter of “tolerance” and political correctness: a mere rebuttal of fundamentalist paranoia. It’s active and ongoing, and requires internal as well as external vigilance. And the first burden is on the adults.

An example of an adult’s rising to the occasion and attempting to change the social norm can be found in a breath-of-fresh-air of a book called You Can’t Say You Can’t Play, by Vivian Gussin Paley, which was published in 1992. Paley was a kindergarten teacher who had seen the same pattern take shape in her classroom over and over: Some kids became “it” and got left out of the flow of public life; for some, the rejection lasted for the duration of their school careers. Grasping the complexity of the situation, she decided both to challenge and to seek the input of every child in her classroom on how this could be changed.

“By kindergarten,” Paley writes, “. . . a structure begins to be revealed and will soon be carved in stone. Certain children will have the right to limit the social experiences of their classmates. Henceforth a ruling class will notify others of their acceptability, and the outsiders learn to anticipate the sting of rejection. Long after hitting and name-calling have been outlawed by the teachers, a more damaging phenomenon is allowed to take root, spreading like a weed from grade to grade.

“Must it be so? This year, I am compelled to find out. Posting a sign that reads YOU CAN’T SAY YOU CAN’T PLAY, I announce the new social order and, from the start, it is greeted with disbelief.”

The remainder of the book describes what happened, much of it in the words of the kids themselves, whom Paley gently but firmly engages in ongoing discussion about the rule’s nuances: about whether it can work at all, about whether it’s fair, about the endless implications. It is not a “forced niceness” sort of rule, with infractions followed by punishment. The rule is meant to open up possibilities for everyone, not establish a new category of misbehavior; it can only be effective with discussion and the gradual formation of a common understanding. And slowly the rule, as it gains class acceptance, begins to separate play, the most important part of childhood, from the shadow realm of possession, control and bossiness.

This honest, luminous little book comes as close as any account I know of to conveying the complexity of social change and the creation of a vibrant, positive peace. And this is just for kindergartners! The obstacles only multiply as we grow older, as habits entrench and toxic social forces lay claim to our thoughts and actions.

As I think about children driven to suicide for their differentness, I feel an urgency not for quick solutions but, paradoxically, for slow change. What can we do to let it begin today?