In Ian McEwan’s new novel, The Children’s Act, Fiona May is a British High Court judge who must rule on a difficult case regarding a 17-year old boy who faces likely death if he does not receive immediate blood transfusions. The boy and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religious group that forbids the use of such medical assistance. In a high-pitched legal battle, the hospital where the boy was being treated was asking that the Judge put the interests of the boy’s health ahead of the religious convictions of the family. As Fiona hears the case, and weighs the competing claims and intense passions of each party, she determines that a ruling cannot come until she pays a visit to the boy in hospital, in an effort to determine if he is fully aware of what may happen to him, as well as whether or not he had arrived at his desire not to receive blood in a free and rational fashion.
Ultimately, she determines that the boy’s best interests are served by allowing the hospital to pursue the necessary medical treatments.
Months later, the boy, now in full recovery, pays a surprise visit to Fiona. He also pays her a great tribute, referring to the manner in which she went about her work in spite of the intensive crossfire of accusation and counter-accusation that had infected this case. As he told her:
You were calm, you listened, you asked questions, you made some comments. That was the point. It’s this thing you have…A way of thinking and talking…It was like a grown-up had come into a room full of kids who are making each other miserable and said, Come on, stop all of this nonsense, it’s teatime! You were the grown up. You knew all along but didn’t say. You just asked questions and listened.
Our school communities, our nation, our world, can feel at times like brittle and intense places of crossfire where judgment comes quickly. In the midst of such contention, it is important to remind ourselves of the power of the person who simply, calmly asks questions and listens. It is that person who is most likely to discover what lies beneath all of the shouting and conflict—real, decent human beings on both sides who are hurting and holding on to deep convictions rarely understood by those who oppose them. What’s more, in modeling this way of thinking and talking we provide both sides with the type of example—that of the grown up—most needed at such times. The muted courage of the grown-up, so to speak, is what is most lasting and potentially healing.