Sunday, July 19, 2009

Making a difference in this world


We can do no great things - only small things with great love.
Mother Teresa.

Thinking this morning about doing things that matter - this Rothschild guy setting out huge projects to rouse awareness of global warming and trash - clearly he wants to matter, to change the world significantly. The New Yorker profile of him details the latest project, to sail around the world on a boat made of plastic bottles.

Most nights we watch NBC news, a sort of old-way kind of thing our parents did, like sitting on the front porch. The news often ends with a segment called "Making a Difference." These little video essays spotlight some formerly ordinary person, sometimes a child, who has conceived of a generous project, and drawn other people in. That's the key. It becomes more than one person, it's big. A system.

I have groused about these enough to Tom, so I'll keep it short here. The assumption of this series (and of Rothschild's projects) is that our gestures matter only if we do something big and visible. These stories never spotlight individuals like my old friend Marie, who appeared at the door after my mother died with a bunch of sunflowers. Marie was like that, dropping off soup. I got to think of what she did as her Bodhissatva work, though I feel sure she didn't think of it that way. She was just led by her sympathy, her desire to offer.

The importance of small actions is so evident when the action is mean - look how quickly a dog or cat learns to cringe or bite or flee, and it is very difficult to untrain them from their fear and their reaction. Maybe we are all that way. I know children are. I remember the single most important thing my father ever said to me.

I was in seventh grade and not adjusting well to the new freedom of changing classes and the new idea of junior high, a pen of adolescents, grades seven through nine, instead of the traditional K-8 grade school I had grown up in, where I'd been looking forward to being one of the big kids. Seventh grade was small kids here.

And now there was homework, on top of it. I didn't like to do it, I suppose. It seemed (and was) meaningless. More of the very boring. My public school education was like that all the way through, tired old teachers stuffing irrelevant facts in your head, you obediently wrote the fact down, Battle of Hastings, 1066, as meaningless as if it were Sanskrit.
Actually, I wish it had been. Then I'd have something to show for those years. How strange that kind of education seems now that we have the internet, the great cloud of facts, any fact you want right at your fingertips, so that it is slowly becoming obvious that mental skills like analyzing the reliability of a source are most needed.
Back to junior high. I had been getting some low grades and 5's in "citizenship," which really meant disobedience, esp passing notes and talking to others, as I recall. But now I had found religion - that's another story - and changed my ways. I was pretty much behaving perfectly, as I understood it.

I waited for my father to come home and sit down at the breakfast table. I must have waited eagerly, anxiously. This was supremely important to me. I believed he would love me now. I thought the love I got was all about how "good" (?) I was, about whether or not I deserved it. I thought I could earn love. I had a Bible that said "As you sow, so will you reap." I understood that in a very simple way, expecting fairly instant results.

I put the report card in front of him, a beautiful clean grid of A's and 1's.

"Straight A's," I said proudly.

He glanced at it and made a dismissive sound like "Harumph." Then he said, "Why aren't they A pluses?" I can still hear the timbre of his voice, can feel that scene almost sixty years ago.

I fell from delighted anticipation to shocked disappointment. My father was hypersensitive to facial expressions, and must have noticed mine. Quickly he said in his rare more human voice, "Oh, I probably shouldn't have said that." Alcoholics do that, express regret. I understand they do it after they beat up their wives.

But he had said it. The moment had occurred, I had taken it in. Nothing could erase it - it was a fact.

It was a long time until I remembered that event, but it left big footprints in my life from then on. I had been trained. I believed that nothing I did would ever be enough (and my father's behavior toward me kept confirming that, the apology forgotten). I don't think I have to tell you how that played out in my life, and not just in the next report cards, not just in how I felt about trying in school. In life.

So many years, decades, later, I realize my father didn't really have volition. He just passed down the cruelty and indifference of his own father. His fire temperament, his DNA if you like, predisposed him to love alcohol, which quickly loosens the tongue. His experience in the trenches of the last great world war left him with the extreme reactivity of post-traumatic stress. What was inflicted on me was a general cruelty of the world you could say. The suffering he had experienced was funneled down to me, and to my brother and sister in different patterns. And this is always true. We are dots in a cultural context. We are the sum of all our experiences. If we don't seriously work on ourselves, we will pass on the the distorted gifts we were given.
It was a really awful moment for me, the time I heard myself hector my little girl in my father's voice, catching yourself in a passing mirror. Slowly you learn to do the only thing you can do, watch yourself and your reactivity, those conditioned things you say. Listen to what comes out of your own mouth. Hesitate. Think of the other's reality, think how you can be kind.

Grand gestures, fabulous stage shows, oh, maybe they influence the world. But when I look at my own life, the great events of my time did not matter nearly so much as that one moment when I presented my report card for my father's approval. He is long dead now, but how he lives on.

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