Both of my parents were raging opiate addicts. They both went to prison when I was in high school. My grandmother adopted my younger siblings and me, but there were considerable emotional and financial strains on all of us. We had to rely on food stamps to eat and it was not rare to flip a light switch and be met with darkness because the electric bill wasn’t paid.
I grew determined to make it out of that bleak situation, to break the cycle of addiction and poverty. And, I did. However, rather than being grateful, I developed an inflated sense of self. Instead of appreciation for all those who supported and helped me I decided that I had done everything completely by myself. I was fairly insufferable at times.
I decided that if I could get out of my situation "all by myself" that anyone who wanted to could also get out of their bad situation. Easy peasy. Furthermore, I didn’t believe it was my responsibility to help others because really, why should I? I did it all on my own and so should they. Clearly, I made only the best choices, never sinned, worked hard, was kinda the bee’s knees.
Nah, I was a jerk.
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And, then in a span of 740 days three events happened that changed my life: my mother died, my daughter was born, my baby brother died. Despite the turmoil that had surrounded my relationship with my mom, I was devastated with her passing. However, seven months after I buried the woman who brought me into the world, I held my daughter for the first time and felt all the broken pieces of me coming back together. I was joyful for the first time in my life.
Then my little brother died before he had really even had a chance to live. His death is one that I think that could have been prevented had even a minuscule amount of basic human decency or compassion been given to him. However, I had to also come to grips with the fact that I too could have been kinder to him. That I could have made an effort to let him know that although I wished he would make better choices that I still loved him deep in my soul. I had been so hard and cold to him for the last few years of his life.
And, there were times when I thought the guilt over that would eat me up from the inside out.
Eventually, I decided that no amount of guilt or self-loathing would bring them back. However, I could go forward in a different way.
Now, were my mother or brother pillars of the community? No, I would never insult anyone by making that claim. Could they have made better choices? Absolutely. However, they were humans and they were, despite all of their flaws and the disease that ravaged them both, loved deeply. They were fighting a battle that thankfully many of us will never have to deal with.
And, as I dealt with these life-changing events, I decided that I had to change. I had to choose compassion. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, I had to be kind.
Am I always? No way. I still get easily frustrated, I can be a complete snob about some things. I am sometimes aloof and self-absorbed. I'm impatient and think that I am funnier than I am. I can be judgmental and I can hold a biblical grudge. I’m still a jerk. I just try to be a compassionate jerk.
I wouldn’t be where I am today had it not been for the unrelenting kindness and compassion of so many people in my life. People who believed in me when I dared them to do anything but. People who never gave up on me despite my surly, cold, arrogant personality. I think that if it weren’t for these people the bitterness and grief would have gobbled me whole.
I’m not saying that by choosing compassion that everything will always be sunbeams and fluffy bunnies. I can still be a cynic at heart. There are truly bad people out there, those who don’t deserve kindness nor compassion. I’m also not saying that there shouldn’t be consequences for one’s actions.
However, as Maya Angelou reminded us, "When you know better, you do better."
Now that I know, I’m just trying to do.