My daughter never went through a stranger danger phase. As a toddler, she never cried when a babysitter came, or when we dropped her off at preschool. Instead, she’d exclaim in delight, tug her chubby hand from mine, and run into the arms of anyone around. Some stranger at Kroger would be startled to find Izzie clamped on their leg, smiling up and asking if they wanted to build a pillow fort with her. She would have happily shared her raisins with the Devil himself. If we took our eyes off her for a second, she would disappear, looking for new acquaintances. Her father and I called this networking; she could work a crowd like a glad-handing politician, spreading love everywhere she went. I have countless memories of standing in the middle of Target or the Post Office, hyperventilating in panic as I searched frantically for my child. “Does this belong to you?” someone would eventually ask, handing over a smiling Izzie. She authentically loved everyone equally, unconditionally. In her mind, a stranger was simply a friend she hadn’t yet met.
Her wandering off to find new friends eventually led me to the cell phone tattoo. I took a black sharpie and drew my cell phone number on her arm, going over and over the numbers each week. This way, people would know to whom she belonged. I branded her, each imprinted digit declaring that this child was my property. “Yes,” I would think. “She is mine”.
Except that she isn’t. As parents, we get to house our kids’ physical bodies, but not their souls. Of all the parents in the universe, she chose me, not the other way around. We think we’re teaching our children about life, when in reality they are shaping us, teaching us what life is truly about.
The best parents are those who strive to be more like their kids, rather than trying to force their children to be carbon copies of them. We don’t own them, but we certainly owe them for bringing out what is most human in each of us. My daughter has taught me how to locate the humor in life’s heartache and why I should question everything. She models how to lose herself in the moment, spending countless hours drawing or crafting. She is skilled at transparently sharing her emotions without shame; she feels her feelings completely and then moves on. She has taught me how to use highlighter correctly and the accurate lyrics to Bloodstream by Ed Sheeran. She has helped me convert kilograms to pounds and exposed me to Riverdale. She is always reminding me how G# differs from Gb and patiently instructs me over and over on how to get my playlist to stop shuffling.
But the greatest lesson my daughter has modeled is how to love without judgment. When life’s noise and diversions are stripped away, what remains is titanic, unshakable, immeasurable love. The ancient Greeks called this agape, a universal, unconditional love that transcends situation and persists regardless of circumstance. This kind of love isn’t earned, given, taken, measured. It simply is. We show up on this planet with the innate understanding that love isn’t something to tally or measure but something that we unreservedly offer others. Real love is caring about the happiness of all humans with no regard to what we’re getting out of the equation. Children love unconditionally and freely, with no thought of reciprocity.
As the Persian poet Hafez wrote, “Even after all this time, the sun never says to the earth, “you owe me”. Look what happens with a love like that. It lights the whole sky.”
Children are fine examples of agape. But as adults, many of us trade in our loving, open nature for a more reserved and pessimistic life view. At what point do we, as adults, stop seeing life through this lens of love? When do we stop using this muscle and replace it with suspicion, negativity, doubt? Why do we stop asking strangers to build a pillow fort?
I remember my child, who never judged herself or others as being imperfect, too old, too fat, too wrong. Maybe I should start writing Izzie’s phone number on my arm, a tattoo reminder to be more decent, more compassionate, more loving. So that when I find myself in the check-out line at Kroger, I’m less apt to scroll through email and more apt to smile at those around me, certain that each person is simply a friend I haven’t yet met. Who knows? I might just walk out with the phone number of my new best friend written on my arm.