Feeding Ice Cream to Adopted Children: Unconditional Love on This American Life

This comes from Mockingbird’s most recent publication, This American Gospel: Public Radio Parables and the […]

Mockingbird / 6.18.12

This comes from Mockingbird’s most recent publication, This American Gospel: Public Radio Parables and the Grace of God, written by Ethan Richardson. Chapter (Act) Eight of the book, “Adopted,” deals with the theological concept of adoption, through the lens of This American Life‘s episode on “Unconditional Love.” Act One of this episode tells the story of Rick and Heidi Solomon, and their adoption of a Romanian orphan, and all the dysfunctions and disorders that came with it. Their adopted son, Daniel, has what’s called “attachment disorder,” which psychologically means he can’t empathize, and thus can’t love back. A living example of the difficulties of love, and a powerful reminder of our Christian hope, of a stubborn love that stays despite the human inclination to endlessly fight it. Listen to the clip first.

For punishment, something Daniel worked hard to earn (under the expectation that it would push his mother away), Heidi introduces “time-ins, the alternative universe of time outs” where “we would sit on the coach and I would hug him; that was his punishment.” She constructs a paradoxical realm of unrelenting and utterly annoying love. Daniel cannot escape his mother’s tender care. He fidgets, swerves, kicks, pushes back, and she steps into it. Heidi embodies the Christian principle of Grace. An unrelenting, unaccounting, omnipresent love that follows you into the darkest pits, and holds you closely, especially when you mess up and push away. A love that truly bears all things (1 Cor 13:7), one that is most creative when you are at the end of your rope. It is desperate to bring you to itself. It wants you to come to understand that it will provide all things. It will stand beside you—three feet beside you—even when you fight it and try to take care of things on your own. It is impossibly patient. It is “holding therapy”:

Alix Spiegel: That is, every night for a year, 20 minutes a night, Daniel, Heidi, and Rick were supposed to hold onto each other and talk. Rick and Heidi cradling Daniel like a newborn child, which is exactly what they did.

Heidi Solomon: . . . And we would feed him with a spoon—ice cream. That’s what we’d have to do to get him—because he liked ice cream.

Daniel Solomon: . . . Well, it was like, they were feeding me ice cream, so I was like, OK, fine. But it was like that’s when I actually first started talking about my feelings.

Grace cradles you in its lap like a baby and feeds you ice cream—it goofily forces you to reverse your natural inclination to ‘“stop acting like a baby,’” and to, instead, ‘‘start acting like a baby.” It requires complete dependence, and it does not fail. You cannot stop it—though you will try—and it will let you, but it will not leave you. You will accept it, you will squirm again, you will try to take back your life, your agency, and it will sweep you away again. It never gets tired of the dance. You are its adopted child.

Some people might call this a bunch of claptrap hooey. This is not the way the world works. You love someone like this, and they will walk all over you. You give them ice cream, and they will do what you say, but only because you are paying them. The only real way to get respect is to hold a loved one accountable, and not give them an inch of wiggle room until they’ve paid up. This is a quick way to bankruptcy, they’ll tell you.

Maybe they are right. This is certainly not the way the world operates, and maybe it is a shortcut to bankruptcy. Bankruptcy, though, may be the only way to get into the business of unconditional love. Unconditional love has a completely different modus operandi: Go bankrupt. Let it go. Spill it. God’s love is typified by foolish perseverance. It stands in direct contradiction to the common sense of a prudish business model. God’s love doesn’t invest a little love in the hope that you grow it into something bigger—if that were the case, you would be conditionally covered, and conditionally dropped. It invests the whole loaf, risks the farm, leaves everything on the table. Unconditional love doesn’t think about how much it is investing—anything less than everything is too little; or about how much it might get in return—that’s irrelevant to why it went into the business. It loves because it loves—and it gives everything because it gives everything. It dies to itself out of a desire to see the other live. It is completely and utterly engrossed in the other, to the end that it is completely self-disinterested. Unconditional love cannot be snuffed out because it has already snuffed itself out on your behalf.

And Daniel ever so slowly responds. He wrestles and wrestles with his mother, and she foolishly sticks around. Because what Heidi wanted from Daniel was always “all along very, very modest”: that Daniel be able to accept the love he worked so hard to violate. When he finally realizes that nothing he can do will make it leave, he acquiesces. He falls into it. It is in this place of surrender to the offensive steadfastness of unconditional love that Daniel tearfully speaks before the synagogue:

DS: Before I finish, I’d like to thank two people, my mom and dad. The reason that I’m here today and the kind of person I am today is because of you. Mom, I can never thank you enough for all the places you have taken me to, even when I absolutely refused to go, to somehow have fun when I got there. Dad, you’re one heck of a guy to put up with a crazy family like this. And you guys are both amazing. I love you very much.

This is love’s unhurried and deliberate fulfillment, the sanctification of the beloved, by way of love. This is rebirth. This is the new life of an adopted child. This is, as John says, love begetting love. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).