Learning with Jacob

Jacob (our foster son) probably has had more truly awful experiences in three years than I’ve had in 39.  These things leave scars.  “Scars”, though, is a lazy metaphor.  It doesn’t capture the interaction between Jacob’s experience and his present self.  We don’t interpret reality according to our scars, at least not the physical ones.   


Maybe the way to express it is that Jacob has a map of scars.  By doing to him what they did, various people have taught him, “This is how reality is.  This is who you are.  This is where you are.  This is what you can expect.”  The world depicted in Jacob’s scar map is part of his reality.  When he does things that make no sense to me, he is navigating according to his map, as best as a three-year-old knows how to navigate.

He also switches between here-and-now reality and map reality.  Sometimes I can predict the switches (stress often brings out the map); other times I can’t.  Sometimes he is a normal three-year-old boy who says chilling things.  “Are you going to do X to me now, Daddy?” he asks.  No, I am not going to do X, neither to him nor to anyone else, not ever.  However, his map predicts that I will do X, so he asks.

I suppose that Lauren and I are in the re-mapping business these days.  We have to be.  It’s quite clear where his current map will lead him, despite all of his brains and his looks and his charm.  Yes, it’s an accurate map of a certain kind of reality, but it’s not a good one.  Long after that reality has ceased to impose itself on him, he will impose it on his surroundings.

Hence the re-map.  To do that, I have to figure out what’s going on in his head and persuade him, no, life is not actually like that.  That is not what you should expect, so this is not how you should behave.  Basically, we’re trying to teach him that everything is going to be OK, even though everything emphatically wasn’t.


Of course, the re-mapping works both ways.  If you look into the abyss, the abyss will look into you too.  Even as I’m trying to teach Jacob that no, life isn’t like that, I’m learning that yes, life is like that, at least for some people in some places.  There’s a whole world out there that I with my white-picket-fence, ultra-religious upbringing never would have imagined.  Diversity is one thing; an environment of pervasive evil is another.

I also must confront my own abyss.  What if I am good only because it is easy for me to be good, because I was patiently trained by loving parents to be good, because I am surrounded by good family members and good friends, such that I too only am following the map that others have imprinted on me?  This is the goodness of least resistance.

What about goodness when it’s hard?  What about patience with somebody who is trying to provoke you, who wants you to be furious with him because fury is what adults do, who will find your fury perversely reassuring because it confirms what he has on his map?  If you’re Jacob, rage can be a landmark.  It can establish that you know where you are.  Patience, on the other hand, is terra incongnita.  It’s unsettling, at least for now.

What about compassion, compassion that leads with the head and not with the heart, because the heart is pure sick of this foolishness?  What about goodwill, emphasis on “will”?

Note that I am saying these things two weeks into fostering.


A few nights back, I led a Bible study entitled “Antifragility and the Christian”.  For those who aren’t up on their Nassim Taleb, antifragility is the idea that some things grow stronger under stress.  Within limits, our bodies are this way.  Bones that are never forced to bear weight become brittle.

So too it is with our souls, I think.  There are certainly lots of passages in the Bible that appear to discuss antifragility when read with that concept in mind.  According to this way of thinking, bad things happen to good people because without stress, the good people will never grow, and indeed may cease to become good.  Without a cross to bear, even the sturdiest spirit will become flabby.

Trial can be incidental.  Most lifepaths are not smooth, and God is hardly unwilling to allow His own to suffer.  However, it may well be that rather than seeking to avoid trial (which is our natural inclination), we should seek it out for our own good.

I anticipated that fostering would be difficult.  It is.  However, I didn’t become a foster parent for myself.  Maybe I should have.  Indeed, to the extent that I value understanding rather than ease, it’s already clear that I should have.

I’m no savior, but it may be that by the grace of God, I’m able to help Jacob redraw his map.  I may help him transform the way he sees the world.  It’s the best-case scenario, but by no means certain.  I have begun to see, though, that no matter how significant these changes may be, they will be no more profound than the changes he will work in me.

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