The other day I saw an interesting lesson on the children’s show Ni Hao, Kai-Lan. (Not that I ever let my children watch television. When my kids get restless we take nature walks and do educational arts and crafts. I just happened to catch the show because I was, uhh, doing some research on slacker parents who let their kids watch TV. I would never resort to desperately grabbing the remote and imploring my children to “LOOK AT THE GLOWING SCREEN WHILE MOMMY COLLAPSES ON THE COUCH.”)
Anyway, Kai-Lan is a little girl with a friend named Rintoo, and in this particular episode Rintoo isn’t feeling special. Kai-Lan and her other friends seem to have an instinctive feeling that Rintoo must be special somehow, and spend most of the episode trying to figure out why that is. After some searching, they finally figure it out. At the climax of the episode, Kai-Lan announces that she has found the source of Rintoo’s specialness! I suppose it was too much to hope for that she’d quote directly from the Catechism, since it’s kind of hard to rhyme “man is the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake, and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life” and “it was for this end that he was created, and this is the fundamental reason for his dignity.” But I was surprised and distressed at what she came up with: he’s fast. That’s what makes him special. And she went on to tell her young viewers that the next time they’re not feeling special, they should remember what they’re really good at, and know that that’s what makes them special.
Anyone else find that disturbing?
As I watched the little characters dance around and celebrate the various demonstrable skills that supposedly made each one of them special, I was guessing that this wasn’t going to be the episode where Kai-Lan’s slow, obese, mentally ill, physically disabled friend was introduced, because then things would get really awkward.
Though I don’t attribute any malevolent intent to the show’s writers, I think the sentiments they express in this episode belie one of the disturbing logical results of a completely secular worldview. It’s an interesting look at what happens when we take part of the natural law that’s written on our hearts — in this case, the fact that every human is special — and try to explain it without God. Kai-Lan and her friends know on some level that Rintoo is definitely special; and yet they are products of a secular culture which teaches that every truth must be provable by scientific methods in order to be accepted, that if you can’t provide an equation or an experiment to validate its truth then it cannot hold much weight.
There are two main definitions for special: one is “regarded with particular esteem or affection” and the other is “superior in comparison to others of the same kind.” The first is the more pure definition when used to describe the inherent state of each human being. But you can’t get there by looking at the material world alone. In order to confine specialness to the realm of the observable and the provable, you must go with the later, twisted understanding, which leaves you with a malleable definition of what it is to be special. In Rintoo’s case, what if the setting of the episode were moved to the U.S. Track and Field Team’s practice arena? Or what if he became disabled and were no longer fast? What if, for that matter, all of humanity got together and agreed that being fast was not a good trait? Would Rintoo still be special? Chances are, he has other things he’s good at. But what if he didn’t? What if he were the dumbest, ugliest, most rejected, immobile person in the world with not a single thing to offer his fellow man? Would he still be special?
Without God, the closest we can get to explaining the truth of each individual’s specialness is to say that they posses certain exceptional skills or qualities that are currently valued by other human beings, or to perhaps note the fact that each person is different by virtue of their unique DNA. But neither of those statements are accurate articulations of the full truth — and somewhere, deep down inside, we all know it. The problem is this: the reason every single one of us is inherently special — even the most flawed, the most unproductive, and the most decrepit among us — is because we are special to Someone. It’s because we are loved. And you can’t prove love.
As I know from personal experience, when you confine your search for truth to that which can be measured and calculated and observed, you rule out gaining a deep knowledge of love. And until you find love, you can never know God (who is love), and you can never fully understand exactly why it’s true that we are all indeed very special.
What’s the big deal? It makes Kai-Lan and Rintoo feel good to think that they’re special because they can run and jump. Why is that so important that it would make me exert the effort to lift my head from the mound of pillows on the couch and take sharp notice at this message (if, hypothetically, I were to by lying on the couch while the kids watched TV)?
Right now, the dark implications of the secular definition of what makes each person special are easy to ignore. Here in the Western world, we live in a time of unprecedented stability, peace and abundance. It is only certain types of people whose specialness we have motive to disregard — the severely disabled and people who live in their mother’s wombs — and they are voiceless. But as soon as any elements of our society are destabilized, next time we are thrust into a situation of widespread shortage and fear, there will be a lot more pressure to disregard the value of other people’s lives. And if we continue to see our fellow human beings as special based on arbitrary, flexible definitions that are ultimately rooted in human opinion, the devaluation of human life will spread to even more segments of society. And that’s really, really scary.
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