Theodore and Pollyanna
Tuesday, October 9, 2018
Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.
Theodore Roosevelt wrote that in his autobiography, which I have not read nor do I own. I do, however, have a copy of a biography about him called Theodore Rex, but I haven’t read that either. Yet. I bought it at least three years ago at a thrift store when we lived in Chicago with such good intentions, but it remains in a stack, unknown to me. Though I am on my second viewing of Downton Abbey, so, history! Anyhow, due to the wonders and pitfalls of the internet, I have the above phrase printed out and hanging on a wall in our little apartment. It helps me to breathe as I read those words when I allow myself to get caught up in comparisons, even if I’m only comparing myself against the fantasized version of where I think I should be. When I feel tiny and useless and powerless in the face of what feels like insanity, in the midst of double standards, of name calling and online nastiness, of heartache, and fear, of confusion and uncertainty and pain. There is so much pain.
One night earlier this summer, Theo was pinging a miniature soccer ball from wall to wall to wall to wall after dinner. I decided I needed to give him some space to properly release his energy and prevent me from pinging him against the wall, so out we went. The humidity had lifted the previous few days, so we were greeted by one of those perfect evenings of soft, waning light and light air. Theo and Sophie quickly found other kids to play with while Evelyn hung back and observed before deciding where she wanted to be. She had one pigtail in, the other half of her head wild with loose and tangly hair. I pointed this out to her and she said: "I know." It was deliberate. She likes to wear knee socks and is obsessed with Japanese graphic novels. She is at once shy and guarded and a little unsure but also not afraid of her quirk, of loving what she loves without apology. She is complicated, frustratingly so at times, as we all are.
I sat on a bench and listened to my kids' voices and overheard Sophie tell a joke to two rising fourth graders she had befriended, and then I thought about the babies crying for their mothers, the mothers desperate for their children. An adorable 14 month old with dark hair waddled around with a huge hula hoop clasped in her tiny fingers followed by her smiling mother, and I wanted to swallow that baby whole. Two boys were learning how to ride bikes, and one of them accidentally crashed into Sophie because he hadn't figured out how to stop yet. Her hand bled and she wailed and his eyes filled with tears, too. I could tell he felt awful. I held her, and was reminded in that moment that it is a gift to be able to hold her in her pain.
I had left my phone inside because Twitter was making me lose hope in humanity, but I think it was nearing 9pm when I decided it was about time to head in. I did a sweep of the area and saw Evelyn and Theo walking in my direction, looking nervous. I had missed it, but they told me that a woman had just told Theo that "I've almost been run down by about 5 bikes, so can you PLEASE watch out!" She was rude and mean. Theo fell into tears. I fell into irritation and indignant anger. How dare she? I asked Evelyn what she looked like and what she was wearing and took a little trip around the neighborhood on Evelyn's bike to see if I might find her (I'm not even kidding.) I wanted to tell the lady that I hoped she felt good about herself now that she had bullied a little boy and made him cry. In other words, go fuck yourself. In reality, I doubt I would’ve actually said that as I have hang ups with curse words and cleavage that date back to my evangelical upbringing (which was helpful to me in this particular instance), but it’s what I was thinking, it’s what I was feeling.
Thankfully, I didn't find the woman as I didn't even know who I was looking for. Evelyn told me she had a bob haircut (how does Evelyn know what a bob haircut is?) but that’s all I had to go on. We gathered our things and started to head inside and I was able to collect myself and we talked a little bit about how the best way to respond to someone who's angry is in kindness, as backwards as it may feel in the moment. In other words, not like I had just reacted. It was a do-as- I-say, not do-as-I-do type of learning moment. I used words like 'disarm.' Do they understand?
But it was bothering me—how did I get to such an ugly place so fast? I had gone outside to the dirt and the air and the trees to escape the bitterness and vitriol of the internet only to be confronted with it in my very bones. To be fair, the lady that made Theo cry does sound like a version of Miranda Priestly (Meryl you goddess.) On the other hand, for the most part I don’t like kids that aren’t related to me (be honest, neither do you), so if I had been nearly run over five times by oblivious and sweaty children I probably would’ve been annoyed, too. On the other other hand, there is plenty of space and there are plenty of sidewalks in the neighborhood. Maybe pick the ones that are not occupied by my adorable children who are just riding their bikes, minding their own business (maybe a little too much but they’re kids!)
The takeaway: life is knotty and there are many elements at play all the time, but she could’ve been kinder. And I could’ve been more charitable. Our better selves didn’t emerge that time, but the kids are alright.
The current hyper-connected environment is overwhelming for me. It's sometimes hard to feel that as a normal individual you matter. Everything is so loud and so big and so dire and so urgent. And a lot of the issues people face are big and dire and urgent and important. But it's hard to know what to do with all of that when your reach and resources and scope of influence are limited. My initial reaction is to get all worked up and then my eventual impulse is to shut down because what am I going to do that's actually going to have any impact? I'm just a woman in mom jeans (which I guess are now cool jeans) trying to remember to floss my teeth and read that Theodore Roosevelt bio, trying to figure out what’s next and where my place is in all of this. Because I do want to help, to be aware and awake.
True to form, I've jumped between two extremes, neither of which are particularly healthy. Getting worked up usually just leads to Twitter and text spats and shutting down is not constructive either because then we begin to believe that who we are and what we say actually doesn't matter, we retreat to our corners and only come out to spit in our neighbor’s face at the first sign of conflict or complexity, which is what most of this life consists of.
And yet, amidst these complications, amidst the varying degrees of pain that exist for all of us, extending kindness and empathy and radical, counterintuitive love to those we interact with might just be our lifeline. This is the least of what we can do, with what we have, right where we are.
This all sounds very Pollyanna, and maybe it is. After all, by my own admission, this life is often so very intricate. But kindness and love and forgiveness are just as much about self preservation as they are about doing what’s decent for the common good. When self preservation is rooted in love and not fear, it serves everyone. What’s more, this doesn’t mean we become wet rags, quite the opposite really. Radical love contains many faces, but it’s certainly not at odds with justice, or anger at injustice. I believe there are many instances where love and anger can march side by side. But radical love is also a choice—not a feeling—to extend compassion and apply humanity to each other and to our many selves. Yet there’s a catch: we have to give it away with no expectation of getting it back. It's not an exchange. One would hope that by giving it away that it will spark a chain reaction and spread and return, but there’s no guarantee.
Still, I think I’d rather be a Pollyanna than allow myself to devolve into my worst self. I can just imagine her now: crazy eyes and wild hair, maniacally cycling down the street on a child’s bike searching searching searching for a demon of her own making, her brain raging with revenge, her heart slowly dying under the weight of bitterness.