During my junior year of college I spent about six months in an on again off again relationship with ‘S.’ It would be an understatement to say that S and I were not compatible. More than anything, I think we were sort of fascinated with each other.
I had a pretty tame childhood, raised in a small rural town on the east end of the north shore of Long Island. My family was (and remains) very close. We weren’t rich but we always had what we needed. There were family game nights, sing-alongs in the car, and we always said, “I love you.” Life was not perfect but I learned pretty early on that life does not have to be perfect to be wonderful.
S came up hard, an economically disadvantaged inner city kid from the West Coast. He had been exposed to violence and drugs at an early age. His parents were physically there but not very affectionate or present in his life. S didn’t talk about his family much, but he did share the following story with me about his dad:
One day, S’s dad was walking along a river. A stray cat walked up to him and rubbed against his legs purring. S’s dad picked up the cat and threw him into the river. The cat swam back to shore walked back up to S’s dad and again rubbed against his legs purring. S’s dad once again picked up the cat and threw him into the river. The cat again swam back to shore and again rubbed against S’s dad’s legs. For a third time S’s dad picked the cat up and threw him in the river. When the cat came back a third time, S’s dad decided that he and this cat were meant to be together. S said that the only time he ever saw his father cry was when this cat passed away years later.
By the time I met him, S had done a lot to turn his own life around. After losing a close friend to a drug related shooting S made the decision to move East and start over. He had found a full time job working in the warehouse of a shipping company and was taking classes part time at the local community college. He was hoping to transfer to a four year university and major in business. I was impressed that he was working so hard to make a better life for himself and told him so. Still, I often got the feeling that S only partly believed that he was someday going to get where he wanted to be. I’m not sure he believed he deserved his success. S seemed to constantly be waiting for something “bad” to happen that would give him the excuse to say, “See, I told you I couldn’t do it – I’m just going to go back to selling drugs.”
One day over winter break, S called me in New York to lament about his grade report for the semester. He was tremendously disappointed with the B and two C’s he had earned in his classes. I remember saying something to the effect of, “less than four years ago you were selling drugs, then using drugs, then grieving the loss of your best friend because of your involvement with drugs. Now you are clean, working full time, going to college. The fact that you are disappointed in a B and two C’s means you care. That’s a good sign.” I told S that he could do anything he wanted. He just needed to keep moving forward.
We had a lot of these conversations. I gave a lot of pep talks. S told me that he liked talking to me; that I made him feel good about himself but I don’t think he ever internalized what I was saying. I think he wanted to but he had seen too many discouraging things to just “have faith” that things would work out. We often would have lengthy philosophical conversations about the state of the world, about good vs. evil, about whether one person really had the ability to make the world a better place.
Not surprisingly, S felt pretty strongly that anyone who truly felt they had the ability to make a real difference was being naïve and idealistic. People who do nice things for others, he told me more than once, generally have an ulterior motive for doing so. People are selfish, he said, and they have to be. If you don’t look out for yourself first you will get completely taken advantage of. He would tell me the story of the man who nursed a snake back to health only to have the snake bite him. “You knew I was a snake all along,” the snake tells the man in the story. I think that S saw himself as that snake- certain that no matter how hard he tried or how much other people believed in him, he was only going to end up disappointing them and himself.
My optimism drove S crazy. I was young and idealistic and truly believed that I could make a difference. I had visions of the world I wanted my future children to grow up in and I didn’t see any reason why it couldn’t be that way. S cautioned me that the “real world” was not as bright and sunny as I was making it out to be; that there were bad people out there who ate people like me for breakfast. I think he was trying to protect me, like I was a delicate Faberge egg that needed to be handled with kid gloves.
I think I was trying to protect him too. I was never in love with him but I cared about him. I did love him as a fellow human being. I saw amazing things in him that I don’t think he could see or believe about himself. I wanted very badly to be the person to convince him he was more than just the sum of his parts, that he deserved success and happiness, that he was lovable and capable and smart. I tried to explain this to him in the last phone conversation that we had which ended in argument. S told me I was a naïve little girl that understood nothing about how the world really worked. He told me “I hope you stay gold” but that someday, life was going to crush me and that he couldn’t bear to be there when it happened. He said I understood nothing about love and that I might not even be capable of it. That was when I hung up.
That was it for me and S.
I thought about that last conversation for a while. Was I just some naïve, innocent, little girl from rural Long Island? Was I wrong to believe that for the most part people were good and well intentioned? Was it silly to believe that with a little bit of assistance and encouragement people could overcome adversity and make their lives better? Would nothing I did make a real difference to anyone? Did I really not understand love?
I finally decided that S was wrong. He was wrong to equate my optimism and hopefulness with weakness. He was wrong that caring so much about people was only going to result in my being disappointed in them. I understood plenty about love. I grew up surrounded by love. I suspect I understood more about love than S did. S grew up in a family where even the cat had to prove he was worthy of love. I can understand why it might have been hard for him to believe that I just accepted him and all of his life experiences even without having walked in his shoes. I think it scared him that I had helped him, even for a moment, to believe that he was good enough and smart enough and worthy enough. Maybe he felt like if he set his expectations higher he would be more disappointed if he failed. Maybe he just wasn’t ready to believe.
Occasionally, I wonder about S. I wonder if I made any difference in his life at all. I wonder if he graduated and what kind of career he pursued. I wonder if he found room in his heart for hope and faith. I wonder if he ever met someone who helped him to realize that it was him who really didn’t understand about life and love.
Sometimes I want to tell him: It’s been eighteen years since we spoke and life has not crushed me. There have been times of great joy and times of immense sadness. I have found love and lost loved ones. I don’t always understand why things happen in this world the way that they do. But I always come back to these things which help me to choose hope and happiness the great majority of the time:
Where there is darkness, I can spread light.
We can all work to create peace in our own little corners of the world. There is no kind gesture that is too small to make a difference.
All that really matters is love. We are all capable of love.