Approximately 10 years ago, a scientific study of genetics and children’s behavior was published. The findings described, with all of the disclaimers you’d expect, two types of temperament in children: orchids and dandelions.
Dandelion children are resilient. They do pretty well almost anywhere. Like those stubborn little weed flowers, they find a way to rise up and thrive whether they’re raised in the equivalent of a sidewalk crack or in a well-tended garden.
There are also orchid children. Orchids need more attention than dandelions. They’re beautiful, but they’re delicate. They wilt easily if they’re ignored, but they bloom spectacularly when they grow up in a greenhouse: not too hot, not too cold; moist soil, not too much water.
I bet you know adults who also might be called an orchid or a dandelion.
The research’s conclusion was that some behavior in children that we’ve thought of as misbehavior, or even dysfunction, is actually genetically programmed. Some people are born with the resilience and grit of dandelions. Other people – orchids – demand more attention. They require a narrower band of conditions to nurture their growth. One is not better than the other. They’re just different.
The more we know about almost anything, it seems – science, culture, politics, history, genetics – the more we learn that we are not all the same. That there are differences among us that are real. That there are characteristics and needs and “normals” baked into us, and that give us quite different ways of being in the world. Categories such as “good” and “bad” don’t serve us well as we try to understand one another and get along.
It is very human to think that being in the middle of that much difference creates a dangerous condition. It feels much safer to be surrounded by people who are like us. It seems like you used to be able to count on everybody seeing the world in mostly the same way. That never was true; we just didn’t know it. Now, every day the news brings us stories of people who think and act and vote so differently from us, that we are mystified, wary, a little defensive.
The story that Christianity – my tradition – tells at Christmas every year is about God Himself, Creator of the Universe, coming to be part of human life – as a baby. A vulnerable, unprotected baby. A child came to bring hope, and put that hope into our hands – Republicans and Democrats, orchids and dandelions.
In this story, God put everything He is and hopes for and holds most dear into the hands of a world full of unalike, unpredictable, damaged people. Us.
Even if this is not your tradition or your theology, Christmas is a time of year when all of us are reminded that there is goodness, maybe even holiness, among us, even in a year that has discouraged us about our common humanity. Surprising markers of generosity have come into view, tiny new sprigs of the things we long for: hope, peace, joy, love.
Our work as humans is to be as unafraid of our mutual dependence as that infant version of God was. To care for the tiny bit of holiness that has been put into our hands; to surround that holiness – as fragile as it is – with what it needs to rise up and thrive. To see and acknowledge how different we actually are, and to care for one another anyway. To be – together – the home where those delicate, tiny sprigs of hope can take root and grow.