I used to be an effing nice person.
Here’s the thing: somewhere along my life’s timeline, I decided to dole out my compassion, that I couldn’t afford to extend it to everyone. In other words, I do compassion all wrong. My husband’s heart bleeds profusely. Like, it gushes. Mine used to. But not anymore.
Young, innocent me told a driver who wrecked into my modest Toyota Tercel hatchback to go on with her day. I didn’t need her insurance information, because, heck, it was only a car, and she was probably having a rough day. No one was injured; all was fine with the world.
No more. Last week, I cursed out a corpse.
I realize that this makes me an asshole. But let me explain.
My family’s house is hugged by a sharp curve of a busy through-street that cuts through an urban area of town. At least once every few months, someone wrecks. Every time, excessive speeding was involved. Nearly every time, the person had no insurance and was also drunk. Too often, these speeders destroy our property, leaving us with a hefty bill (remember: no one has had insurance), or they destroy public property—telephone poles, water hydrants, trees—leaving us without electricity, water, and cable services and keeping us awake as public works repairs the damage from one kook’s joyride.
We used to have two stone pillars at the end of our driveway. They were both taken out in separate accidents. Our mailbox has been mangled multiple times. The last time, a car hit it moments after my husband and son had gotten the mail.
So my stress hormones are always pumped up. I’m always on the defensive, there in my own home, ready for the next incident. I am protecting my home, my cub, our lives and limbs. The drivers have no sense of the magnitude of operating a deadly weapon, and they have no respect for the safety of my neighborhood. In turn, my compassion for them is zilch, and I go outside to yell at the drivers before I ask if they’re okay. Because, hell, I don’t care if they’re okay. They didn’t care about me being okay.
Back to the corpse. Last week was the first time a guy died in one of these crashes. He wrapped his car around a telephone pole. I heard him rev his engine before I heard what sounded like an explosion. I had just renewed my CPR certification, and I was first on the scene, but what did I do when I ran out and saw the car hood smoking? Yell that he did an effing awesome job driving, and thanks so much for giving a crap about my family’s safety—that’s what.
Then I noticed he wasn’t moving.
All the 911 folks came. The guy wasn’t wearing a seat belt; he died at the scene. So that means that my words were either the last he heard, or I yelled at a dead guy. I’ll never know which.
But I still somehow didn’t feel compassion for him. He had put himself in danger, and he put everyone else in danger, including the public works guys who had to wrestle downed wires and replace a whole damn telephone pole, and you don’t get off the hook for that just because you’re dead, pal. I was pissed. Because of him, I got no sleep because of the noise putting everything back together between midnight and 7 am.
That’s what prevents my compassion from bleeding out of me—the senselessness, the absence of awareness. The fact that people like that guy put my family in danger every day when they go 60 in a 35 mph zone. They had no compassion for us, so I’m withholding mine. Na-na-na-na-boo-boo.
Like I said, I do compassion all wrong.
Charity—brotherly and sisterly love that flows freely without expectation of receiving anything in return—is becoming harder for me, the more often I’m exposed to dangerous, foolish behavior right in front of our house. Animals and children, innocent people in the wrong place at the wrong time—they get my love. I save it all up for them, like wartime food rations.
But even then, some children have to work for it. Children who bully other children, in my opinion, ought to be hung upside-down by their toenails. My husband says they’ve had hard lives, but me? I say I had a hard life too, and bullies made my life exponentially worse. I didn’t bully back. A hard life is no excuse.
There’s a bit of vigilante in me, more than a tad of Hammurabi. I have Libra rising, I’ve always carried around a strong sense of justice, sticking up for the innocent. A few Chuck Norris and Clint Eastwood cells twitch in my veins. But hell, you put me in front of a puppy that has been abused, and no one would hug him longer or harder until all the bad stuff has been overcome by the good. Love gushes out of me then. And that much love can come out because I’ve bottled it up so I could pour it generously when and where it’s most needed.
Some people would say it’s most needed by, say, the people who abused the puppy, because they had probably been abused too. Love thy enemies, blah blah blah. I’m not sure I can get back there again. I spend my energy loving those who hunger for love, who can accept it with an open heart. I conserve my energy. I love efficiently.
Now, if one of those speeders came to me, opened his heart, and said from the very bottom of it, “I am so, so sorry,” the tap would turn on, and out would come a trickle. I’m not completely heartless. Deep regret, followed by a change in behavior, can go a long, long way.
Being the way I am, I’m happy for weeks like these, when Atticus Review examines charity—love existing because it doesn’t know how to not exist.
Graham Tugwell’s “The Patron Saint of Cloven Meat” reminds me a bit of one of the later episodes in Ulysses, mostly “Circe,” where the language evokes a dream-like state in which absurdity reveals some profound truths. The nonsensical makes sense here, and is beautiful in the way it elbows its way through the crowd of words, and comes through despite the limits of language. The questions of love, faith, forgiveness, charity, and commitment are given room to mingle in an entirely non-didactic forum, and the answers spiral just out of reach, leaving a reader holding out a hand, wanting more.
Some of us are more “Outside the Palace” than others, but not really—a keen point Robert Johnson makes in this week’s flash. Seven short paragraphs, and Johnson says something I’d been trying to articulate for years. When a homeless guy comes up to me, sees I drive a Saab (albeit a 2003 station wagon), and doesn’t believe I don’t have a buck to give him, I want to tell him, “Look, dude, I know you don’t believe this, but I have fifteen dollars in the bank until Friday, and I’m about to get gas on a credit card. I’m no better than you.” Which of course is rubbish, because at least I have a car; I have credit cards; I have a home to drive to. So many of us squeak by in different ways, through different crowds, with different masks, and we don’t really know the truth about anyone. And we have these ways of giving and receiving that are loaded with meaning, weighted with backstory. The voice in this story is perfect for quickly getting to the core of an awkward exchange.
This week’s poem has to be one of my favorites we’ve published so far. No matter where you live, you’re probably aware of a small American town named for a brilliant European city: Paris, Tennessee; Rome, Georgia; London, Kentucky. Robert Wynne took the idea of how (dis)similar these places are to their namesakes, and ran with it in “Rome, Iowa.” The center of the universe really can be anywhere, and the absence of a secret is often more daunting than its presence. The poem also speaks for poetry as a whole—that it can document a person, a time, a place, that in seconds can be crushed by Pompeian ashes and lost.
This, I think, is at the heart of why I’m an asshole: we are fragile; we can be crushed and lost for reasons that don’t make sense. I get angry when I see imbeciles handle life recklessly, having no sense of the gravity of each move we make. I think that writers are hyper-aware of this—how a single tweak can make a sentence sing. We are sensitive to nuances that might translate into a meaningful narrative, the twitch of a finger that would set a character apart. We are glued to these details and find value and meaning in them, perhaps even more than overarching themes and punches in the gut. In my experience, writers are more aware of themselves and others, and this is a big reason why I love spending time with them. We see.
Some part of me hopes my anger will shake someone else—my target—awake, but the odds of that are slim. Instead, it brews in me. So, yes, I realize the irony here: that my anger toward oblivious people is also reckless. It’s an ineffective battle cry that does little more than stir my adrenaline.
Things happen. True accidents are horrendously tragic, and so often there’s no one to blame. But if a person doesn’t wear a seat belt and is excessively speeding around a sharp curve, the crash isn’t an accident; it’s the culmination of a set of bad decisions.
So of course I shouldn’t have yelled at a dead guy. But when I saw the crash, I could only think, That’s where my husband walks our four dogs twice a day. That’s where mothers stroll with their newborn babies. That’s where bikers and runners cross every morning, and where minivans shuttle little kids to school. That’s where life happens. And this guy could have changed any of these people’s families forever with his decisions, in the same seconds he changed his own.
Wrong compassion is better than no compassion. So, for now at least, I’ll stand by my code: I respect life that respects life. And I respect the hell out of people who can love without limits.
Photo Source: Burning Man Zero Seven