does it burn? does it eat away at the internal components, hot and roiling like magma? anything that carries venom or poison: insects and spiders, frogs and snakes. when you carry something inside of you like that, does it burn you, too?
we were sight-seeing. it was the end of the day and ruth was straggling, lagging and tagging along behind on some old historic train tracks, left over from over a century ago, no longer in use, having a grand time, balancing on the tracks and running up and down, just letting her legs roam amongst other wandering tourists, just humming along to the energy of the day, letting it all sink in. greg and I stood, exhausted parent types that we’ve become, at the edge of the parking lot, beckoning to her to come to the car, it was time to go.
suddenly, just as simply and unstoppable as any unfortunate incident that crops up like a thunderhead in a cloudless sky, a couple chanced to walk by, and thinking themselves pretty clever, bent over to ruth, and said, forebodingly, “hey, you know there’s a train coming!” pointed off into the distance and then walked away from her, guffawing.
I knew the couple, had noticed them walking around town, hand-in-hand. the reason I noticed them is because they were two young girls, probably teenagers or in their early twenties, and after the instant that they were both girls registered in my brain, I made an effort not to gawk at them like I saw so many people doing. they were clearly in a romantic relationship. I felt compassion for them, because I now know what it’s like, maybe for the first time in my life, to stand out in the crowd, to be the subject of derision and attention, being a breastfeeding mother and a mother of three young children. it’s been an eye-opening experience. it’s made me extra sensitive to who I am looking at for too long in public. because I’ve learned that those lingering gazes add up quickly.
my heart was in my throat as I watched her reaction, saw her look up at the girls, then glance nervously off into the distance before hopping quickly off the tracks, her calm and happy manner retreating, her eyes clouded with confusion and fear, and something else. this was perhaps the first time someone she would consider an adult used her gullibility to have a laugh at her expense and I saw a small amount of understanding of what was happening to her as they laughed. that these people were not trying to help her. their aim was something she was unfamiliar with. something laced with malice and meanness. she looked stunned and hurt.
and just like that, they kept walking, totally oblivious to the emotional bomb they had just detonated in the heart of my young daughter. and I stood there, like a dummy, just watching the whole thing unfold, really too far away to intervene, but close enough to see everything. and I felt in my chest something hot and pulsing rip open and spew out black venom that filled my person and nearly compelled me to act. I felt rage. I felt capable of terrible things. I felt hate towards those people who sauntered smugly away from the devastation they had caused in a young innocent person.
ruth came over to us, still looking stunned, abused and like she was still absorbing what had happened, numb. greg took her into his arms and said, “I’m sorry ruth. those people weren’t nice people,” and a torrent of heartrending sobs began to wrack her tiny little kid body. people turned to look, shocked by the sheer sadness in her cries, each of them probably recognizing their own sentiments of despair at all of the injustices of the world in the tones.
I’m not stupid. I know they didn’t mean any harm. they were just…teenagers. callous, careless teenagers who were bored and have bad attitudes and wanted to do something that the other would think was mildly humorous. I could actually even conceive of myself at that age doing something similar and not thinking twice about it.
as we drove out of town, ruth still sniffling in the backseat, I found myself in a state of shock as well. that I could feel so full of hatred so quickly, so ready to do another harm in a moment of passion. I felt the brokenness of the world, the disconnect between people and situations. “there’s just so little understanding between people,” I said to greg, “there’s so little empathy.” I was talking about myself as well as the teens, and also ruth. “everyone is so immersed in their own situation and totally oblivious to other people.” ruth isn’t around teenagers, and vice versa. those teenagers didn’t know how sensitive and naïve a five year old is, and ruth has no idea that teenagers are in a weird life transition and are often callous and rebellious and lash out at people, trying to figure things out. I don’t have much sympathy for teenagers, my own memories of that time foggy at best, and never being around teens these days for any reason, I’ve lost touch with this age group. I’ve lost empathy.
my own venom at once shocked me and made me feel that something fundamental is missing in my life and the lives of my children and the lives of those teenagers: a real community with people of all ages living and working together. empathy in the real world, where the rubber meets the road, in the every day interactions of our lives.
because living with that venom, eventually everything inside gets burned. it’s no way to live.