Saturday, November 19, 2011

It's lonely over there on the side of the road.

what if what's required for us all to breach
the doorstep of peace is to shuck the carapace of our grudges,
liquid all of humanity into a new, complicated, carved
out of our scars, relationship to forgiveness?

One of my fondest memories from my high school days was when the youth group at the Episcopal church where I was a member was put in charge of the morning worship service one Sunday. We got to choose music, lessons, and sermon. It was the first time I'd ever heard The Beatles' Eleanor Rigby, one of the saddest songs ever to be written. (This was in the 70's. I had a rather protected childhood, as you can gather, given the fact that a church service was one of my fondest adolescent memories. But I am, in fact, grateful for this.) I got to hang out with the two boys I was crushing on at the time, Mike Kidd and Keith Evans. Most memorably, I was chosen to play Lucy van Pelt in our sermon that Sunday, a series of original Peanuts cartoon skits.

One of the readings that morning, which brings me to the point of this post, was from a book I can no longer remember by an author who was, I'm sure, a flash in the pan, but I can still remember the gist of the message even after all these 30+ years. As Lucy, I was the one to give this particular reading because it suited Lucy van Pelt's character. It went something like this:

"I hate black people. I hate Jewish people. I hate Native Americans, Italians, Irish, Yankees, Southerners, Democrats, Republicans, city people, country hicks, smart people, dumb people . . . (and the list went on). But mostly, I HATE BIGOTS!"

I've never forgotten that reading. I think, in some ways, it has greatly informed my political views - progressive, and my profession - psychotherapist.

We had a terrible, terrible tragedy happen in our little island community this past weekend; a car full of young people, coming from a party, ended up in a fiery crash. The three passengers were all killed, and the driver walked away from the accident. She is 18 years old. Her life as she knew it is gone. She will be charged and found guilty of vehicular homicide, no matter what the toxicology report finds, because there were witnesses to how fast she was driving on this wet, dark, back road. I can't stop thinking about her. My heart aches for the families, friends, and loved ones who have lost the three young men who died. It's a mother's worst nightmare - that phone call in the night. But I can't stop thinking about this young woman. The grief that comes from the loss of someone who has died will most likely eventually lessen, there are memories, and time heals that intense pain. I know this from experience. The keening doesn't last forever.

But the grief that comes from knowing that you have taken a life . . . I just can't imagine what this young woman must now live with. Reports from the jail are that she is thinking and feeling everything one would expect to experience in such a situation: that she should have died in that accident, that she wishes she'd never been born, that she wishes she could die now, that she doesn't want to live. The community has sent letters, she has friends lining up who want to see her during her very limited visiting hours. The students and staff at the school from which she graduated have had a long, somber, heavy-hearted week. I can't stop thinking about her, and I think, "No, this would be a mother's worst nightmare."

I have also been thinking quite a bit about that lesson I read in high school in the persona of Lucy van Pelt. The judgments from some quarters laid down upon this child who must live with the consequences of her actions from that night have been harsh. I've talked with people who have said that she should be charged not with vehicular homicide but with murder. I've read comments online calling for the death penalty. It's a terrible terrible tragedy. And there all kinds of questions here about intent, guilt, accountability, and punishment. But here's what I want to say about all of it:

The person driving that car could have been either one of my own children at that age. It could have been someone driving home from a restaurant after drinking a couple of whiskey sours, not intoxicated by any stretch of the imagination, but the toxicology report would show alcohol in the blood. Or me on any given afternoon, driving home from a meeting, impatient with the slow driver in front of me, looking for an opportunity to pass. It could have been one of the guys driving home after stopping at the bar on his way home from work for a couple of beers. It could have been any one of those three young men who were passengers in the car. For all we know, it could have been the driver of the car that this young woman had just passed. It could have been any one of the millions and millions of people who drink and drive in this country. Or any one of the millions and millions of people who drive behind a slow car, passing impatiently when given the chance.

I find it ironic that Lucy van Pelt is both this crabby, judgmental little girl and also the Peanuts' resident psychiatrist dispensing psychological wisdom for 5 cents a pop. Because I have found that on my journey to becoming a depth psychologist, I have gained an increasing amount of respect for people of all sorts. This isn't because I'm some wonderful, saintly, compassionate person - though I aspire! It's because I know now that everyone has a story. Lots of stories. A lifetime of stories. And many of those stories are not happy ones. We are all really just onion-y layers, as Jane In Her Infinite Wisdom so beautifully put it, "layers upon layers of interesting, and occasionally, tear-inducing pungency."

One of the people who called for a murder charge is also someone I had a conversation with many years ago, sitting in an airport; also one of my favorite memories from an earlier time. He and I sat in this international airport and watched streams of humanity walk by, people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and beauty. I commented on how amazing it was that there were millions of people in the world, and every single one of them was different. Not one the same among the millions. And my young friend commented in return, "What I find amazing is that there are millions of people, and every one has a different story."

Yes. We all have stories that we often can't see in each other's faces. We have to look deeper, peel away the onion-y layers to get to the truth of the person. We cannot know the road that another has traveled. We cannot always know the pain, the guilt, the tears and sadness another has experienced. What led them to this moment, right here right now. And sometimes, their story is very similar to ours.

Each of us are capable of great goodness and also capable of equal darkness. We are human. We meander down this road from one end to the other, doing the very best we can under sometimes unbearable circumstances. I'd much rather be a companion on that road than to be standing on the side heckling, pointing my finger, and laying down judgment on those who pass by. Even though the latter might feel like the safer stance, I suspect it's quite lonely over there on the side of the road. And I'd much rather have companions who will listen to my story than to be shamed and judged for my all too human failings. I just keep on trying to peel back the layers, shuck the carapace, invite the storytelling.


  1. All so true Robin. I looked at the young girls FB page and was made even sadder as it illustrated just what a normal 18 year old girl she 'was". You are right, her life as she knew it also died that night in a split second. I feel more vulnerable the more I age and I miss that feeling of indestructible youth, even knowing how fickle the sense of security is in actuality.

  2. I can really relate to a lot of what you wrote. I'm not sure when I crossed the road - from finger pointer/heckler to companion. You are right, everyone has a story - maybe it was when I started reading my own story.

    It could have been anyone, that is for sure. It could have been Logan...18, dreaming of his future, making plans, being a very active member of our family, and just pure love in his being.

    I felt like I had to know more about all four of those kids. Two, Mick and Mack, were friends of of a friend of Evan's. I wanted to know if there were signs that were missed in each of their "stories", that if discovered earlier, could have prevented this accident.

    Then come the questions, because it all comes down to choices (the word of the day for our household - every day it seems). Why did they all make the choices they made, that day - and how different was that from any other day? What made her choose to drink (assuming there was alcohol)? What made her choose to drink and drive? What made her choose to pass the car? What were the factors in how she made her choices that day, from the second she got out of bed until she got behind the wheel? What was missing in their lives (assuming that something was missing) that if present could have helped her make better choices? How can this experience save others in a similar situation?

    I feel for them all, the parents, friends, loved ones left behind and also for the girl who lost more than she'll ever be given credit for by the finger-pointers. I would love to stand in that line of visitors, a stranger who would love to just give her a hug and let her know that despite it all, she is worth the hug from a stranger.

  3. I'm not religious but, when I hear stories like this, all I can think is "But, for the grace of god, go I."

    You are right. This could have been any one of us for so many reasons. My heart goes out to all the people who've been touched by such a terrible tragedy.

    Also? Thank you for your generosity.

  4. Jen, Such important conversations you are having with your boys. They're lucky.

    Jane, You're welcome. I loved that post. I love all of your posts. But I especially love that one. It reminds me so much of some of the people I've encountered in my life. Precious people that I might have never gotten to know if I'd continued to let my Southern Methodist upbringing get in my way.