There are two things my young friend Brooklyn is going to miss when she returns to the United States this spring at the conclusion of her year-long tour of duty in Afghanistan.
"I'm going to miss the naan," she said in a recent email, referring to a leavened, oven-baked flatbread that she claims she has become addicted to.
"American bread just isn't the same without the extra dirt mixed in."
The other thing she's going to miss is actually a lot of things: the Afghan children.
"They are absolutely adorable," she said. "There are not a whole lot of things in this world cuter than a 3-year-old Afghan girl following a goat around with a stick."
The children in Afghanistan start working at that early age, helping to tend the family flocks.
"I can't even imagine my mom letting me run off at that age to tend my flock all day, miles away from home," Brooklyn said. "But that's just common practice here."
Evidently, it is also a common practice for the Afghan children to imitate the things they learn from American soldiers.
"When we first got there, they greeted us with vulgar language and hand gestures and pretty much hassled us whenever they saw us," Brooklyn said.
"We figured they were just repeating what previous soldiers had taught them, but that didn't stop us from returning those gestures and that language. I mean, we were not about to be outdone by a bunch of Afghan children."
The trading of insults went on for a while in both American and Afghan accents. Then one of the soldiers went right up to where the kids were gathered.
"We watched him — we weren't sure what he was going to do," Brooklyn said. "But he just started talking to them like you would talk to kids back home."
Immediately, everything changed.
"All the kids stopped throwing insults," Brooklyn said. "Instead, they shouted questions about life in America and what it was like to be a soldier."
And the soldiers reciprocated the change of heart.
Before long, the children and the soldiers were friends. The kids would make naan and kabob runs to the local village for the soldiers, and the soldiers would reward them with candy and coins.
When one of the boys proudly spoke of saving enough money to buy two goats for his own flock, the soldiers pitched in to buy him a third. Brooklyn was even able to get the boys to let her challenge them to a little slingshot-shooting competition, even though they insisted that "girls can't use slingshots."
The boys, it turns out, were wrong.
But then, so were the soldiers.
"We all felt pretty stupid about the insults," Brooklyn said. "I mean, they were just kids, and we're all adults. At least, we're supposed to be."
In Brooklyn's view, the Afghan children taught the soldiers a valuable lesson.
"It was actually pretty easy," she said. "All it took was a few kind words, and all of a sudden we were friends."
It isn't always that easy to turn enemies into friends. Nor is it as impossible as we occasionally make it seem.
Sometimes it just takes one person being willing to make the first friendly move, or to be the first to set aside hurt feelings, or to say "I'm sorry" even if the other person is the one who really should apologize.
Life is just too short to spend it awash in negativity and offense, real or imagined. How much better it is for everyone if we can focus on friendship, and turn insults and harshness into relationships that we value and cherish.
Almost as much as the naan.
To read more by Joseph B. Walker, please go to www.josephbwalker.com.
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