I have seen this proverb before but, for some reason, the depth of its meaning did not reach me until I saw it yesterday. Yesterday, its truth became so obvious to me that I slapped my forehead with the palm of my hand and wondered how I could have overlooked the wisdom contained in those words. “The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” We wonder why mistreated and ignored young people engage in self-destructive behavior and perform acts that degrade even further the environments into which they were born and left to make do on their own. We wonder. Well, the Ethiopian proverb gives us the answer.
The words go beyond ignored or mocked or mistreated youth. People in the workplace, in the family, around the neighborhood. Everywhere we have the opportunity to engage and accept people. We also have the opportunity to isolate and ignore or reject them. When we choose the latter, we risk becoming the trigger for unpleasant or even violent responses born of rejection.
As I contemplate this proverb, I think of the migrant children being held along the Mexican border in conditions that resemble concentration camps. U.S. officials responsible for their detention and the conditions under which they are held should consider this Ethiopian adage because, one day, those children may well “burn down the village to feel its warmth.” What village? The village that began life in 1776, of course.