Our human natures are so complex. An infant is pure innocence but over time environment and emotional responses to the world can turn that baby into a dark and frightening adult. The green eyed monster of envy colors the way we view the world. Our competitive natures can turn to greed. Our frustrations might burst forth in anger. Sometimes our thinking calcifies into hate and therein lies the greatest danger we might impose on the people around us.
I grew up in a bubble of sweetness and kindness. We had everything we needed inside the compact area of my neighborhood. We went to school there, attended church there, purchased our groceries there. The people who lived near us were much like us. We saw very little diversity or variety in our world. It felt safe and happy and wonderful but it was not all that we needed to become thinking adults capable of making wise decisions. Our teachers stepped in to help us see that there was much more to the world at large than what we were experiencing in our little corner.
In the seventh grade my teacher taught us about rhetorical devices and propaganda. She blew my mind away when she noted that even politicians in the United States of America used misleading information to influence us. It was mind altering to hear such things. My high school English teacher often spoke of our need to become citizens of the world. He exposed us to books, periodicals, plays, ideas that were foreign to us. He widened our horizons all the while expanding our minds. My college professors continued to take me on a journey of enlightenment that forced me to take a hard look at my own viewpoints. I learned how to question everything before succumbing to belief. It was both exhilarating and frightening.
Then there was my grandfather who taught me about his own folksy history and his journey toward illumination. He introduced me to truths that I had never before been taught. He gave me books to read and spoke of the flaws of his heroes as though it was important that I understand that imperfections are part of who we are as humans. On one occasion he gave me a book about Abraham Lincoln, one of his most admired historical figures.
I devoured the story of this man who suffered from bouts of severe depression and fought demons of his own while tenaciously holding our nation together. I neglected the assignments from my college courses to read the biography all the way to the end. I was curled up on a couch in our living room one evening when my mother’s boyfriend came to take her out to dinner. While she was readying herself I sat nervously doing my best to be polite to him. There were things about him that I did not like and it was uncomfortable just being in the same room with him.
He had known my mother when they were young teens. Mama had actually had a crush on his brother who would later become a respected professor at a university. This man on the other hand had accomplished little in his life. He was a sad character who had gone from one job to another and then lost his wife to cancer. He was raising two children on his own and he met my mother at a gathering of Parents Without Partners where they recognized each other immediately. The common thread of their youth had brought them together but beyond that they were so unlike each other.
He was a member of the John Birch Society, a far right organization known for its racism and conspiracy theories. He had made my mother feel uncomfortable with his tales of intrigue and had even boasted to her that he knew people who would eliminate someone with the blink of an eye. She had wanted to end their relationship but he had spun a web of guilt and fear around her that became more and more abusive and frightening over time. I had grown to be wary of him and I continually hoped that my mother would find a way to break off her relationship with him.
On the day that I was reading the book about Lincoln that my grandfather had given me this man began to spew a kind of political phenom unlike anything I had ever before heard. He insisted that Lincoln’s assassination was a godsend for the country. He spoke of the freeing of the slaves with a level of racism that I had never before heard. As he continued his tirade I found myself experiencing emotions unlike any I had ever before endured. I literally felt the sting of hate growing in my heart. I wanted to tear out his eyes and push him out the front door threatening him with the same kind of violence that he described to my mother to keep her in line. Instead I sat silently seething and feeling ashamed for lowering myself to his level.
Eventually his constant barrage of verbal abuse broke my mother. She experienced a total mental breakdown that required hospitalization and lead to a lifetime of therapy. My uncles had to visit this man with threats of their own to keep him away from her. She was free of him but not of the paranoia that he had spewed while they were together. From that day forward she had fears that I am sure came directly from his hateful points of view because they had never been there before.
It took a long time for me to eliminate the hate that I bore toward him. I did not like how it made me feel but just the mention of his name stirred emotions that I knew were wrong. Time passed but those memories never faded. Eventually when I felt safe from him I no longer worried that he would show up to once again disrupt my mother’s life. When I believed that he would not harm us anymore I was able to replace my loathing of him with pity for his ignorance. Still I wondered if some other poor soul had become the victim of his animus.
I have no idea what became of him but I know that he changed me and my mother forever. My own level of trust lost its innocence. I also understood that I too was capable of the most despicable of all human emotions, hate. I had to forgive him and then myself before I was able to move forward. I did that mostly because I was no longer afraid of him. I was able to reject the poison that he had injected into my family and realize that he was a sorrowful person who had somehow been damaged long before he came into our lives.
My mother never again spoke of him. I think her relationship with him had started from her unlimited compassion. She wanted to help him and his children. Once he had dominated her fragile mind her only goal was to humor him lest he do her or her family harm. The price she had to pay for her goodness was a lifetime of fear brought on by episode after episode of mental illness. Mine was the cost of losing my innocence and understanding than hate can fester in any heart unless we actively work to keep it at bay. Luckily my teachers and my grandfather had given me the tools I needed to overcome the destructiveness of hate.