by Heidi Shott
After the bomb went off, we pulled our chairs in a circle and looked at one another in stunned silence. It was a few weeks before the end of the fall semester at Tufts University and our class of about 15 graduate students in “The History of Educational Thought” had coalesced nicely – or so we thought.
That evening some trigger in the discussion caused a middle-aged student in the counseling masters program to flip out. I mean flip out. She stood, she ranted, she raved, and to our horror – she suddenly channeled her vitriol almost entirely at my friend, Beth, who was sitting beside me. Beth was very shy and kind and unassuming in a New England kind of way. The ranting woman began by berating her Beth for her Pappagallo shoes. Then she started in on what she perceived as Beth’s upper middle class status. Before long she folded each of us into her rant against the inequities of life in America and our personal culpability for it.
Beth protested, “You don’t know anything about me.”
I knew something about Beth. That fall we started together in the same small graduate program and became particular friends. We had things in common. Both of our father’s had suffered serious financial meltdowns when we were in our teens. She had worked hard to put herself through Boston College. Everything she had, she had because she had worked for it….including nice shoes.
The ranting woman scared us deeply. One moment she was sitting among us as we discussed some idea in the readings and the next she was on her feet, screaming, accusing, finger-pointing and gesturing dangerously. Everyone was afraid to approach her for fear she might lash out and hurt someone. Our professor, a tall, wise woman on loan from Harvard for a night class, stood at the front waiting for the right moment to intervene.
Then, just as suddenly as she flipped, the woman rushed from the room. A classmate, a keen counseling student, slipped out to assist her. Everyone remaining took a deep breath and instinctively pulled our chairs in a circle.
“I was born in October 1929, the day before Black Friday,” began Dr. Smith, after a moment. “As a child, during the worst part of the depression, I could have butter or jam on my toast. Not both.” She continued for awhile, telling us about herself and her childhood without the professorial reserve, before she turned to Beth. “No one really knows anything about our story. That wasn’t about you, and I’m sorry you bore the brunt of it.”
Our hearts heavy and bruised, our nerves jangled, we began talking but I don’t remember anything else we said.
Two years ago, 25 years after that evening at Tufts, an email arrived from my blogging software informing me that there was a comment from Anonymous waiting for approval. My blog, www.heidoville.com, is a less a blog than a online closet to hang personal essays that I write, according to myself, “about trying to live a life of faith in a complicated world from a small town in Maine with three guys and a rabbit.”
The truth is that since 2008 when I took on the job of Canon for Communications and Social Justice in the Diocese of Maine, I haven’t had much time to write reflective pieces. Most of the essays at heidoville were written in the mid-2000s during a particularly fecund period in my writing life. One of those is called, “Rich People,” and it is the one that Anonymous had felt compelled to comment on.
It began, “You sad and pathetic person,” and went on from there, quoting scripture and challenging my courage to post it. I didn’t think much more about it. In years as a diocesan newspaper editor and as a reporter before that, I’ve received many anonymous letters. I save the quirky ones, but I don’t hold truck with anonymity.
Without approving it, I posted my own comment below the essay. It read something like, “Dear Anonymous, When you show the courage to publish your name, I’ll show the courage to publish your comment.” I figured that would be the end of it.
Soon after, however, another comment showed up for moderation. This time Anonymous indicated that he or she had been a “friend” in college. Now that’s creepy. I don’t remember what else it said – I’ve long since deleted it – but it wasn’t friendly.
Two more years zoomed by. Yesterday morning, I received an email saying Anonymous had posted another comment about the same essay. The comment began, “You are a sad and pathetic person.” Oh bother, I thought, here we go again, and I instantly clicked, “Reject.”
However, last evening at home, I checked email on my phone and there was another comment waiting for moderation: “Heido, Cat caught your tongue?”
“Don’t read it,” called my husband from the kitchen. “The person wants to upset you.” His family owned a daily newspaper for almost 100 years, and he has a zero tolerance rule for unsigned letters. For him, it’s a simple matter. “Delete it. Disable the comments,” he said. “That person, even if it is someone you once knew, doesn’t know a thing about you.”
So I disabled the comment feature on the blog, which is sad, because I’ve received many lovely comments on various essays over the years.
But here’s the thing: I AM a sad and pathetic person. There are many, many things I’m sad about and there are too many things to count about my personal failings that could be deemed pathetic. Most of them aren’t too important, but some of them are and I’m not proud of them.
But here’s the other thing: Aren’t we all? Aren’t we all sad and pathetic and lonely and wounded in our own peculiar way?
What my past friend Anonymous and the woman who lost it in an upstairs classroom at Tufts 27 years ago, need to know is that we are not alone. They need to know that sadness and pathetic-ness (not a word, I know, but hang with me here) share our life stage with joy and wonder and hope. Not all at once, not in any sensical or balanced way, but ultimately if we open our hearts to God, to love, to mercy, to generosity for our fellow travelers, the balance shifts toward grace.
I think it’s interesting that Merriam-Webster’s first definition of pathetic is “having the capacity to move one to compassionate or contemptuous pity.”
In our recent discussions in the Episcopal Church about the correct definition of the word mission, and how we often use it interchangeably with the word outreach, perhaps the Church could define itself simply by serving those who move us to compassion, those whom the world regards with contempt. That is to say, everybody. Maybe the capacity to serve with compassionate, Christ-inspired intention is what separates us from other groups that do good works. Maybe that’s what the world needs to notice about us.
A few days ago on The Lead, Jim Naughton embedded a brief video of George Carlin talking about the oddness of the phrase, “in your own words.” Who else’s words do we have? No one’s, only our own. Telling our true stories allows others to take heart, to recognize similarities and common bonds of connection, to cast off the sadness and world-weariness and step into wonder and hope.
This fall, during my hour commute to the diocesan office in Portland, I’ve been listening to Philip Pullman’s, His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman’s one of England most articulate atheists, of course, but he has a lot to say that is wise and true. He’s telling a “make-like” story about a universe of his own creation and we would do well to learn from his vision of what makes a just and loving world.
At the end of the last volume, The Amber Spyglass, a physicist called Mary Malone encounters ghosts pouring from a rent in the world of the dead. Before one of the ghosts allow the remaining particles of her being to float away, she tells Mary, “Tell them stories. They need the truth. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well, just tell them stories.”
In the good, if strange, company of Carlin and Pullman, I guess I have no choice but to keep telling my story, even when it makes me feel vulnerable. It’s the only one I know.