In Greta's shoes
Who would have guessed that being a father would involve so many discussions about shoes? In order to fit in with their peers one of my teenage daughters wants me to shell out an inordinate amount of money to resole her favourite boots while the other has ‘accidentally on purpose’ lost her school shoes. Now she wants me to buy her the brogues that everyone else is wearing or, she claims, Imay be the cause of her getting bullied! What should a father do?
Unlike my teenage girls Greta Thunberg is not worrying about shoes or about blending in with the crowd. Thunberg is a 16-year-old Swedish environmental activist whose passion, courage and oratory skills have earned her a hearing at the UN, a Nobel Peace Prize nomination and audiences with key global leaders. This week she was in the UK and addressed MPs with great urgency and compelling clarity.
Responding to questions about her Asperger’s Syndrome Thunberg asserted “being different is a gift”. She says that her diagnosis makes her see things from outside the box…. She said that if she had been like everyone else, she wouldn’t have started the school strike. As a parent of teenagers, and a foster carer to a child on the autistic spectrum I am very moved by both Thunberg and her message. Thunberg offers an inspiring role model not just by speaking up about the urgent need to respond to climate change, but by being willing to celebrate being different in a society where being different is too often criticised. The French philosopher Michel Foucault used to lament the prevailing sentiment that:
“...if you are not like everybody else, then you are abnormal, if you are abnormal, then you are sick... These three categories, not being like everybody else, not being normal and being sick are in fact very different but have been reduced to the same thing”
Seeing difference not as a sickness or abnormality but as a gift takes great courage and self-belief. It also implies belief in a “giver”. When the Bible says that God is the giver of good gifts, it also says that each of us is “fearfully and wonderfully made”, whatever our abilities or disabilities. It famously uses the metaphor of a body to describe how everyone is unique, valuable and necessary. In a letter to the Corinthians they are asked us to imagine a foot complaining it isn’t a hand, or an ear wishing it were an eye. Just as we need all the different parts of our body for it to function as it should, surely also it is when we embrace our own differences, and the differences in others, that there is hope for our world. I still haven’t resolved the dilemma about shoes in my house, but whatever footwear they end up with I would love my teenagers to learn to follow in the footsteps of Greta Thunberg and know that being different is indeed a gift.