I owe just about everyone I know an apology: I’m sorry, because I have been a real curmudgeon lately.
I don’t know what it is (I have a conjecture or two that I’ll get to in a minute) but I just have this bad attitude that I can’t seem to shake.
I could call it a lot of different things: anger, resentment, jealousy, exhaustion, mourning, and I feel all those things at different times, but I want to explore the idea that what this boils down to is bitterness. By bitterness I mean that resolved rejection of the idea that goodness exists in people or in the world at large, a refusal to acknowledge that healing is possible, a choice to remain frozen in all the ways that the world has broken our heart.
A few days ago I went to the library and pulled out a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s Everything that Rises Must Converge. I’ll admit with some embarrassment that this is the first of her work that I’ve read, and the first story was like a slap in the face. These people are horrible! I thought. I don’t know if I can keep reading this.
But I did, and each story is the same: full of scheming people being awful to one another until the end of the story where they all wind up dying or killing the person they most love. These stories are bitterness in the flesh and talking back. They are viscerally disgusting, they illicit a response similar to that you might feel passing a possum in the road that’s been dead about three days in the middle of August in the south. Revulsion mixed with sorrow that such a thing could be so knowable, so commonplace in our world.
I’m not a literary critic, and I’m happy to have permanently left book reports behind me in grade school. But I am somebody who regularly escapes into literature, and I am also somebody who does not believe in coincidence. Thus I found myself asking Why did I pick this book off the shelf? What am I supposed to be learning here?
At first it felt like the lesson being taught me was that people are awful, that we are incapable of love, motivated only by self-interest, and that our lives can end only in senseless tragedy. If this is the truth, then I don’t want to know it, I found myself thinking, just about ready to put the book down for good.
Then it hit me: these stories are warnings. That slap in the face? That was me seeing myself in these people, in their unwillingness to recognize goodness, in their rejection of love, in their insistence on disconnection and resentment. That’s me all over the place, the realization knocked me down and dragged me under, like the wave that pulls you under and tumbles you across the sandy sea floor before it spits you out on the beach, nose full of seawater and perhaps without your shorts. Humility is rarely brought about gently.
It is so easy to fall in to the trap that bitterness opens. This false belief that no one understands or cares about your struggles, that we’re alone in it all, that love isn’t real. Being one of the first of my friends to have a baby, resentment and misunderstanding come easily. Motherhood and caring for Joseph require modes of functioning and levels of responsibility that I would not choose were it not for his existence, and that my friends have of course not chosen, nor do they have the need to do so. There are many things that were central to my identity and happiness before his birth that I can no longer participate in: think bicycle-as-primary-transportation, dumpster-as-food-source, live music after 7 pm, and so on.
When I am always the first person to say goodbye, to turn towards home while everyone else turns towards adventure, it is easy to retreat into my shell of bitterness. If I do not allow myself to feel love and connection in the first place, then this temporary exclusion is more bearable. I go home and feel sorry for myself, reflect on how nobody understands what it’s like to be a single mother or gives a shit whether I’m included, and resolve how my life is full of gaping holes left by Things I Used To Be Able To Do.
Repeat this process a few days in a row and pretty soon I’ve turned into the troll under the bridge, hiding in the darkness waiting for someone to come along so I can play a mean trick and gobble them up.
So this morning I set a timer for ten minutes and I sat down to write a list of Reasons My Life Is Amazing. Someday I’ll give myself three hours for this exercise, and I’m sure that I’ll never run out of reasons. But this morning ten minutes was enough to transform me from troll back into human being, my big squishy heart full to bursting sitting in the sunshine on the wood planks of the bridge, open wide to whatever joy or pain might come our way.
Reasons My Life Is Amazing #13:
I have some of the most amazing friends a person could ask for. People who are willing to stick with me even when I am grumpy and awful for weeks at a time. Even when all I can manage to do is complain and push them away, they’re still there waiting with understanding when I eventually come around. Friendship is hard! But I know some of the most incredible people who have come down to walk around on this earth. I mean that as a fact.
Here is my apology, though it won’t reach every one who is deserving of it. I am resolved to stay up here in the sunshine, though I know I’ll end up as a troll under the bridge one day. All I can hope is that when that day comes, I’ll remember to go for a walk in the woods, or write a list of reasons my life is amazing, or go to the library and check out Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge.