As he wakes up from a short nap in his bassinet, a tiny infant blinks his eyes several times and then gazes at the apparatus hanging above his head. It is a mysterious object that is designed to capture his attention. Someday the baby will understand that it is a collection of brightly colored butterflies suspended in such a way that any movement makes them appear to fly around in small circles. But today the baby does not understand this. Today there is just too much to know. But, fortunately, there will be an entire lifetime to learn it.
Today the baby only knows if he is too warm or too cold. Hungry or sleepy. Wet or worse. And when any of these situations occur, he immediately notifies those in charge, thanks to a healthy set of lungs, that he is displeased. Today his life is simple and uncomplicated. Today he wants nothing more than to be occasionally held and rocked.
What truly matters at this stage of his existence is what he does not know.
The infant does not know that he is utterly helpless. He does not realize that his very survival depends on being loved. He is unaware that he is being cared for by individuals who, at this time, are unknown to him but who are actually the most important people in his life. As he grows older, it will become far too easy for him to forget how vulnerable we can each be, and how much we need each other.
The baby has no perception of time. He cannot tell if it is night or day. A fact that his parents are made aware of at 2:00 AM. He does not know what season of the year it is. It doesn’t occur to him that there will be a tomorrow, let alone a future. The baby lives moment to moment. There is only now. But someday he will develop an overwhelming preoccupation with time, and he will decide that his is too precious to waste on helping others.
The infant has no understanding of age. It does not matter to him that he is only three weeks old. He does not know that he will become a toddler, a child, a teenager and eventually an adult. He cannot conceive of growing old with all that entails. Therefore, he cannot yet develop a bias against people of a certain age.
The baby has no appreciation of his family genealogy. He has no idea what country he is in or how he came to be in this place. Nationality is of no concern. And because he cannot grasp that he is part of a particular group, he does not feel animosity towards those in other groups.
The newborn has no way of knowing if he has been born into a family that is financially stable or one that is struggling. It plays no part in determining his happiness. For the first few years of his life, his view of others will be unclouded by whether they live with wealth or in poverty.
The baby is oblivious to his physical appearance. He does not care how he looks. The color of his hair and eyes do not matter. He is unconcerned about his facial features. At twenty-two inches and nine pounds, his height and weight are not an issue. For now, he will readily accept people no matter what their appearance happens to be.
At this point, the infant has no understanding of gender. Being male or female has no meaning. He is incapable of judging a person based on their sex.
It is inconsequential to the baby what race he happens to be. He has no awareness regarding the color of his skin. Whether he is black or white has no relevance. Ethnicity does not exist in the baby’s world. Every person is the same.
The infant has no religion. He doesn’t believe anything. It will be years before he decides which theological teachings to trust, thereby causing him to reject all others. The particular faith he eventually embraces will be determined, in large part, by his geographical location. His desire to fit in with like-minded individuals will leave him suspicious of those who believe differently.
The baby has no understanding of sexual orientation. People are just people, and that is the end of it. But some day he’ll be more than willing to judge others who he believes are sinful and do not deserve acceptance.
The newborn has no concept of disability. He has no way of discerning if he has an intellectual or physical challenge. He cannot tell if he is different from other babies in the way he thinks or moves. He does not have the ability to compare himself to others.
The baby cannot lie. It does not understand deceit. It cannot comprehend the effort to mislead or misguide. It can only communicate the truth as it understands it, usually in the most robust voice possible.
The baby has no knowledge of human relationships. He has started life with a willingness to love without limits. For now, this love is universal and all-encompassing. But, unfortunately, it will not last. At some point, he will become very selective regarding who he feels is worthy of his affection. Sadly, the criteria he’ll use to limit who he believes is deserving of his love will often be based on distortions and misconceptions.
This baby, like every infant, is a tiny bundle of innocence. He is goodness without a trace of maliciousness. He does not know how to be unkind. Because he has no vocabulary, there is not a single word he can use to hurt someone. He is not capable of physical violence. Revenge is not a thought pattern he can engage in.
But despite this total lack of knowledge, and without any understanding of his circumstances, the baby is completely content with who he is, his place in the world and those who interact with him. As he lays quietly in the bassinet, he is at peace.
However, as time goes by, he will tragically learn how to see the world in a harsh, unforgiving, irrational way. And he will learn how to do that from you and me.
We will be his teachers through our thoughts, words, and actions. By watching our behavior, he will decide the world is divided into “us” and “them”. By studying our mindset, he will determine that anyone who is not like him must be suspect and cannot be trusted. Thanks to our propensity to be intolerant, he will learn to reject those who have different opinions and do not agree with him. Using our bigotry as a form of justification, he will think that it is acceptable to look down on those whose skin is a different color. By witnessing our narrow-minded attitudes, he will believe that those who have disabilities are not his equal.
It is by observing, first hand, our bias and prejudice that the innocence he is born with, the innocence that allows him to trust and believe in people, will be crushed and replaced by cynicism and hostility. As he grows older, he will become insensitive and calloused. He will refuse to keep an open mind. He will fall into the destructive habit of rushing to judgment without any knowledge or facts. Worst of all – he will reject love and instead embrace hate.
But that doesn’t have to happen.
With each new generation, we have the opportunity to stop this relentless cycle of harmful behavior. But it is not easy to break away from the past. However, because negative attitudes are reinforced by example, we can alter them by changing the way we interact with those around us so that we provide positive role models that clearly demonstrate the way we should treat each other. Instead of poisoning the innocent with intolerance, we can offer them the truth that we are all the same. We can help them understand that no person or group is better or less. We can show them that every human being is equal to every other.
From the moment of birth, our natural inclination is to accept, to trust, to believe and to love. It is only through repeated exposure to the damaging thoughts and opinions that plague humanity that we slowly come to approve that which is not natural. In order for us to become suspicious and judgmental, we must abandon faith and trust. To become cynical we must lose hope. To be filled with hate we must give up on love. When we allow ourselves to be less than our best, our humanity is compromised – and, by extension, we have a negative effect on those around us.
But, thankfully, we each have the power, as well as the responsibility, to alter our perspective and change our way of thinking. We can choose to live in a way that lifts others up. We can refuse to judge, discriminate or hate. Instead, we can decide to accept others as they are. We can treat everyone with the dignity and respect they deserve. We can understand that the world belongs equally to all of us and that to ensure safe and healthy lives for our children we need each other’s love and support.
And among those whose future is at stake, is the baby in the bassinet. For now, he is blissfully unaware of the ethical and moral struggles to come. At this moment, his only focus in life are the colorful butterflies making gentle circles over his head. However, even the fascination of their random movements does not hold his attention for long, and he soon slips back into innocent sleep.