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Sunday School for Donkeys

On stubbornness.


My family’s genome is a complicated one, strung together by ancestors whose only common trait seems to have been their determination to live unusual lives. We have a Norwegian strain (thanks to an adolescent who ran away to America, illegally entered the armed forces, and eventually became a brigadier general). We have a Cuban strain (from the terrifying five-foot-tall wife of said Norwegian adolescent, who met him while she spied for the United States during the Spanish-American War). We have an Irish strain (on which side of the family there was an uncle who broke a promise, became a priest, and died in Reno, Nevada, after which event the lilies in his garden bloomed out of season). These folks are all gone now—they died before I was born—but from the insistent oddness of their lives, I think they must have shared what I call the “mule gene,” else it could not have been passed to my siblings and me. 

The mule gene is just what it sounds like: an unrelenting stubbornness found in many pack animals and some humans. I think, unfortunately, it is dominant. Yet it isn’t always a showy, tantrum-throwing obstinacy; it can be subtler than that, the way a donkey might simply ignore your instructions without bellowing or biting. It’s a trait that means when you’re pointing a certain direction, you’re going to continue in that direction, regardless of whether you know where you’re going. If you ever have the misfortune to drive with a mule-dominant person, you’ll watch in bafflement as he or she ignores the pleas of the G.P.S.

Strange as it may seem, I bring up the mule gene as a plea for the religious education of children. I had to the good fortune to be born to a Catholic mother and a willing Baptist father, to have been stuffed into a lacy white infant gown and subjected to a few pours of cold water, to have been sat down before I knew better and told, “Now listen to this, this is true”; otherwise I might never have become Catholic, at least not without that bellowing and biting in my hypothetical conversion story.

I can’t imagine the person who could’ve convinced me to convert. I would’ve needed a saint, and he would’ve needed to slap me across the face, and even then I would’ve felt like slapping back. Certainly, all things are possible, and God could have accomplished it, but He loves me and spared me such violence. He made me Catholic before I could protest because, if He hadn’t, it would’ve taken years or possibly my whole life to accomplish the same.

Teach your children the faith and don’t mince words. Don’t lose sleep about “indoctrination” unless you find yourself twisting the truth about the world. The bull-headed child needs a set of instructions, plain and simple, if she’s ever to survive herself. Besides, her flaw could become a gift. My obstinance, which might’ve kept me from God if I had no firm foundation, instead bound me to Him even as some of my peers fell away. My kin passed on their remarkable determination to do strange things; my parents set my course for me in faith; when the time came to choose my own carrot, even my own adolescent doubts couldn’t overcome this mulishness that had been pointed in the right direction. I could protest against myself all day long, but more important to me was to continue going where I was already going.

Of course, stubbornness is not itself a virtue. It needs practice, prudence, compromise (a word I considered crude when I was a child). This is a long-term process. In the meantime, I remember Christ chose a donkey, and it did follow the road to Jerusalem. 

A donkey should be chastened and chastised, but earlier than that, it should be impressed with the correct impressions. So put your mule-children on the best path and point. Let the Lord change them along the way into creatures of grace and acquiescence so that, when they find themselves limber, galloping, and no longer such frustrating little boors, at least they will not have wasted their boorishness. I am still making use of mine.

Adriana Watkins is a middle-school teacher in Texas.

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