This I Believe
I believe in the power of determination and the necessity of compassion. My parents were good Irish Catholics from the north of Boston. They believed in boiling their food flavorless, and that the only joy in God is when he gets to smite someone. They divorced when I was six. We were the first family in our congregation to choose eternal damnation over an insufferable marriage, which caused considerable social discomfort to my family and particularly to my mother.
Being a coach of both little league baseball and church league basketball, a member of the Knights of Columbus, a local business owner, and a drinking buddy of our priest, my father weathered the brimstone and hellfire storm better than the rest of us. In fact, he seemed to revel in his role as victim of my mother's sinful plot to raise fatherless children and defy Papal Doctrine.
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Nobody seemed to notice that we children were far less clumsy after our father left: we stopped falling down stairs, we stopped bumping our heads on doors, and we could sit without wincing. Nobody questioned why we went without food, why I had to wear my sister's old winter clothes, or why we lacked fuel to heat our house. Nobody noticed, nobody asked, and nobody told, even when we were reproached on the steps of our church. We just turned the other cheek and let the rest of our bodies' follow, never to return.
My mother couldn't find work and we went on assistance, as she called it. One day she and I stood on the sidewalk waiting for the welfare office to open; two men drove by in a work truck and yelled, "Get a job!" I was maybe seven years old, but I was so filled with rage that I knew I could have killed those men with my bare hands. I started after them, and my mother jerked me back. She knelt down and looked into my eyes. I'm sure she felt my rage, which reached far past two strangers in a beat-up old truck. She told me that I should have compassion for those men because they didn't understand the pain they caused a small boy. She told me that if I couldn't forgive them that I risked becoming like them.
It was a long time before I understood her advice.
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When I look back at that time, I marvel at how my mother got us through an energy crisis, a recession, and resisted the pressure to stay in a harmful marriage. Her determination was manifest in her working long hours, weekends and holidays, but the benefit of her compassion is far more subtle. Her determination gave us a better quality of life, but learning compassion raised her spirit above the cruelty and pettiness of those who made her life so much harder than it needed to be.
And oh, to the men in the truck: I forgive you.
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