Last week, “Tropic Thunder” hit movie theaters, and I hit the protest line. I joined with a crowd of disability advocates, self-advocates, and my own family to challenge the film’s unfortunate and disparaging use of the word “retard” and it’s unacceptable stereotyping of people with intellectual disabilities. We held signs, marched in lines, and chanted to moviegoers, “Stop the show, the “R” word has got to go.
But I was taken aback by one moviegoer, a young woman in her late teens or early twenties. She marched by us indignantly, refused to take our literature and snapped at one of our young protesters, “Get a life.”
Curious, I thought, that she would see all of us assembled — diverse, engaged, organized, and with strong opinions — and use those words. I wondered whether it was a throw away line or if it meant something. What, in the mind of today’s young people, does it mean to “get a life?”
So I asked a group of people in their teens and twenties — my children, cousins, nieces, and nephews. What does it mean to you guys to “get a life?”
The answers shouldn’t surprise. “If you’ve got a life,” my cousin Jack, 15, said, “you’ve got friends.” Rose, 21, expanded: “people who ‘have a life’ are the kids who belong. They’re the ones who are in.” “Is there a single word?” I wondered. “Cool,” responded Sam, 16. “Kids who have a life are cool.”
Belonging. Included. Cool. Those are teenage-speak words for what the great spiritual traditions invite us to do with our lives: build community, promote acceptance, inspire joy. The Jewish people defined themselves and their religion through covenant, a relationship of belonging between the people and G-d. “I will be your God and you will be my people,” the prophet writes. The ultimate in having a life was having a relationship of intimacy with the divine.
A similar spirituality continues in Christianity as early believers put their focus on creating community. The Book of Acts is an account of how those who lived after the death of Jesus created their version of a church, a place where people who believed in the risen Lord could share their lives and feel connection. “They held all things in common” showing that they trusted each other, felt a bond. God’s presence, they believed, enabled a kind of supernatural connection to others–relationships without barriers; relationships of love.
In our everyday world, every parent knows the challenge of belonging. We raise our kids to be good friends to others, and we try to help them find a peer group in which they can feel at ease, comfortable, accepted. Kids want to belong and parents work hard to help them do just that.
But belonging can cut two ways. Some people can feel “cool” only when others feel excluded. The coolest kids at school are often those who only hang with other cool kids. The mark of cool can be that you’re good at putting down those who aren’t.
That’s not the type of belonging that lasts. A spirituality of belonging isn’t exclusive; rather, it’s inclusive. The spirituality of belonging has a powerful message: we feel most included when everyone is included. Our deepest aspiration is to be at one with everyone. That’s the real cool — being cool with everyone.
That’s why stereotypes and name calling are so dangerous. They have a subtle way making some people feel rejected while others benefit from feeling included. We’ve seen it over and over again: name calling and giggles of ridicule lead to loneliness and humiliation. It’s a story as old as the bible and as current as the protest line at “Tropic Thunder.” There is always someone who doesn’t belong, someone who we need to laugh at, not with.
All this came full circle as I thought about that young woman who sneered at us to “Get a life.” The more I thought about it, the more I realized that we were on the same mission but with very different strategies on how to get there. She wants cool, but I fear it’s the kind that excludes. We want cool, but the kind that includes. We want a life for people who are too frequently society’s outcasts. We want every child — not just a few — to grow up and have a life.
That would be a great storyline for a movie. And that would be a lesson worth teaching our children. Surely, we can agree that name calling and mockery aren’t cool no matter who is the intended target. Surely we can teach our children that they will find the greatest happiness when they broaden the circle of welcome, especially to include the kids who struggle.
That’s a lesson that has power from the spirit to the school. And, in the end, that’s one sure way to get a life.