“I’m a lonely Buddhist.”
She asked him more about it. He told her that most all of the kids at school are Christian or Jewish. He pointed out that we don’t live around any other Buddhists, and that there are no Buddhist kids in his school, which makes him sad.
It was like the other day, when we were driving his friend home from an archery lesson, and the kid was describing the seder meal at Passover to my son. The kid said something to the effect of, “If we lived in ancient Egypt, the Egyptians would have given kids like you and me a hard time, because they didn’t like Christians and Jews.” The kid rambled on for a while, and my son shot me a look in the rear view mirror as if to say, “Can you believe this guy? Help me out here.”
“It sounds like your friend thinks you’re a Christian, buddy,” I said to my son during a lull in the conversation. “Do you want to talk to him about that?”
“I’m Buddhist,” he told his friend.
“”Is that a type of Christian?” his friend asked. My son went on to describe the Buddha, and explained to his friend that he goes to a Zen center. The friend listened, dumbstruck, absorbing the notion that there were more than just Jews and Christians in the world. By the time my son was done with his short explanation, we were at the kids house.
After the kid got out of the car, I told my son what a good job he’d done. I was really proud of him, and happy about the way everything played out. If people make assumptions about my son, many times I’ll step in and answer for him. This time, I thought it was important for him to correct the assumption. He just seemed to need permission or help starting that conversation. I was so proud that he was able to say something.
My son has come home from school in the past, proclaiming that he voiced his difference. He’s asserted in class that in addition to Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, Buddha’s Birthday is celebrated in December. For show and tell even brought in the cedar stick used to start meditation time. The teacher eats it up. Kids haven’t been so helpful. One of his shittier classmates leaned over to him once and said, “God doesn’t like people who don’t believe in him.” We had many discussions at home about that kid and his remark.
I grew up a Catholic White kid in a mostly Catholic, nearly all Christian, suburb of Chicago. My Irish and Eastern European heritage seemed no different than that of anyone else in my nearly all-White suburb. Let me put it this way: my mind was blown when I was 10 years-old, and my friend disclosed that he was Lutheran. Lutheran? What the hell was that? I was so sheltered, I didn’t quite comprehend that not everyone affirmed the Pope or believed in transubstantiation.
I had it so easy blending in with everyone else, to the point that my belief systems were a match with those around me. We were seemingly the same, inside and out, spirit to pigmentation. But my son faces a very different life. He’s one of the only non-White kids in an 98% White community, and he’s Buddhist to boot. Not only do people not look like him, but he even has to explain his spiritual practice to a friend who has zero concept of what he’s talking about.
But at least he does it. For all the timidity that he shows on a daily basis, there’s still something inside that incites him to speak up about his Buddhism. He’s told friends, explained things to his teacher, and even woven it into his artwork at school. It’s obviously very important to him, and he makes his voice heard, even if in small ways. When I was a kid, if people made presumptions about me, I would just swallow it. I’d shut up and go about my day. There was something in me that was too afraid of confusing or offending others. This fear persisted, even though I didn’t even have much to speak up about. I looked the same as everyone else, had the same religion as everyone else.
And yet here he is, my son, looking different and believing different things, and he’s found his voice. I couldn’t be prouder of my Lonely Buddhist.