The Most Remarkable Person I Ever Met

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You probably wouldn’t notice her if you passed her on the street.

It’s not that she isn’t attractive, but it is an attractive middle-age — no competition for her younger, “knock-out” self.

But if you did happen to look closely, the thing that you’d see would be the kindness in her face: a most uncommon capacity for affection, forgiveness, and grace.

She is perhaps the most extraordinary person I’ve ever met; someone with terrible luck, especially early on, but an emotional generosity that would cause even a sceptic to believe that humanity just might come out on the side of the angels, after all.

Her mother was, of all things, a social worker. But whatever mom knew about social work, she forgot as soon as she came home. Her youngest — my patient (let’s call her Maggie) — was an active, pretty little girl.

Could mom have been jealous?

Mother favored Maggie’s older brother, (let’s call him Tom) a beefy, muscular giant of a young man who was his high school’s resident athlete and hero early, turned bully and trouble maker late. By 14 he was a drug addict, which only fueled an already unbridled, violent streak. That quality initially made him a boxing and wrestling powerhouse, before it made him an ungovernable monster.

But he was clever, only beating on his sister when his folks were at work or away, usually careful not to leave marks that couldn’t be passed off as his sister’s clumsiness. When Maggie complained to mom, mom sided with her male child. And when teachers saw this young girl looking distracted and downcast, unable to concentrate and lost in daydreams, they just thought about how unruly her older brother was, and assumed that his sister practiced a less overt form of disobedience and disrespect.

What about dad? He was a decent, but weak man. While he sympathized with his daughter and believed her stories about Tom (in part because he once — just barely — prevented Maggie’s death by strangulation), dad’s own alcoholism made him an inadequate advocate and defender. Moreover, his job took him out-of-town for days at a time. And when he wasn’t there, Maggie was an easier target for her mother’s verbal abuse, mom’s claims that she lied about Tom, and brother’s use of Maggie as a punching bag.

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The family was divided into opposing camps. Mother held the metaphorical whip-hand, angry at her husband for his weakness and addiction, angry at her daughter for her beauty and closeness to dad. Tom became almost a substitute marital partner for Maggie’s mom, without the sex. He was the one she admired and did things for. He was the one she protected. He was the one she believed, no matter how preposterous his stories were.

Maggie lived in fear of her own death at the hands of a drug-crazed brother, terrified of standing up to people and voicing opinions that might be criticized, and desperate for affection and safety. She learned to follow orders.

Not surprisingly, as she got older she drifted into her own alcohol abuse and escape from reality; and into relationships with men who initially looked to be protective, but inevitably turned out to be unkind at best, abusive and selfish at worst.

Her therapy process was a long one. She needed to grieve the events of her childhood: the weakness and death of her father, rage and weep over the abuse she suffered, grapple with a mother who was no mother, and a brother who was a criminal and her tormentor. Maggie had to learn how to value herself more highly and stand-up for herself more routinely.

Meanwhile, Tom’s life of antisocial behavior eventually became impossible for even Maggie’s mother to deny. He spent time in prison when he wasn’t ripping-off friends and associates, selling drugs, and abusing his own wife and children. The children came to hate him. And in middle-age, the combination of 40 years of drug abuse and diabetes began to show. Increasingly isolated and alone, he reached out to the sister who had finally gotten him out of her life.

By now Maggie and her mother were closer, the same mother who all but trained her son to go after Maggie like an attack dog. To some extent mom apologized. And when the mother became infirm, Maggie cared for her.

Now Maggie confronted Tom. No longer the bully, he had become a man in a more dependent position. Tom had almost no friends, lived alone in poverty, and received subsidies from the state to pay for his medical needs, groceries, and rent.

His diet ignored the encroaching diabetes and its increasing claim of his lower extremities, to the point of becoming wheel chair-bound. Much of his money still went to drugs. Every day meant another chance — a requirement, a necessity — to score. His government check came at the beginning of the month so that by month’s end, having purchased drugs to remain high for as much time as possible as soon as possible, he had little to pay for food.

Maggie confronted her brother with his physical abuse. He told her that he had no recollection of it, but didn’t say that he disbelieved her. Indeed, Tom said that he knew she wasn’t lying, but blamed the drugs for his lack of memory. Was he lying? Was Tom in denial himself? Or had the drug-induced haze of his teens given way to a drug-generated brain damage that genuinely robbed him of his ability to recall those events that she remembered so painfully?

With the mother’s death, Maggie’s brother was the only surviving close family member. And, in his distress, the most extraordinary thing happened. Maggie was kind to him, affectionate, and tried her best to help him make his life less miserable, a life that represented the just deserts for his misanthropy and criminality.

For the most part, Maggie no longer put-up with her brother’s crap. She challenged his lies, sometimes going as much as a year without talking to him because of his persistent abuse of his own body and reluctance to put himself in treatment for his addiction.

But, when they did have contact, she was able to laugh with him and worry about him and feel sorry for him. Not because he had earned any of this, but simply because her basic human decency and loving nature could not do otherwise. When he had surgeries, she always came to his bedside, even though she lived in another state.

Inexplicably, whatever lingering anger Maggie had for her sibling vanished. She had come to see him as someone who was in the grip of an addiction that was costing him his life, but no longer capable of doing anything to free himself.

At the end, when Tom’s organs started to fail, he called her and let her know that the doctors said he would be dead in a matter of days. She traveled again to the in-hospital death vigil. Even Tom’s children wanted no part of him by this time. And, for two weeks, Maggie (nearly bankrupt herself) lived in a motel near the medical facility and spent each day and evening at Tom’s bedside, ministering to the brother who had tormented her and crushed her; holding his hand and soothing him in whatever way she could.

Near the time of his death, nurses and staff came up to Maggie individually and made a simple request: “May I hug you?” Maggie embraced each of them as they told her that they had never before seen the kind of devotion and cheerful tenderness that they’d witnessed in those two weeks of Maggie’s shining presence at Tom’s mattress-grave.

“We see so many families that can’t seem to be bothered, that call and ask whether the relative is still alive, that just can’t bear it or don’t take the time.”

The hospital staff saw Maggie as extraordinary. And they didn’t even know her history of abuse or that the man who lay dying was Maggie’s abuser.

And when her brother died, Maggie wept for him.

You may be asking, how can all this be explained?

I know that I would not have behaved as admirably as Maggie did.

In trying to understand it for myself, here is the best I’ve been able to do.

First, I must eliminate two explanations. Maggie’s behavior was not a function of some deep-seated and thoroughly-considered study of moral philosophy. She was not an abstract thinker, steeped in the world of ancient wisdom and people like Socrates, Epictetus, and Kant; but lived instead in the real world of practicality and daily challenges.

Nor was this woman very religious. Thus, her actions didn’t spring from reliance on holy text, a profoundly held belief in God, or even something as simple as church attendance, which she had long since given up.

No, the best I can do is to say that some few people like Maggie are just “good.” Not the kind of good that is relatively convenient. Not the kind that gives money to charity or volunteers at the soup kitchen, as “good” as those actions are. They are good at a level that confounds understanding — so good “by nature” and by choice that they don’t seem bound by man-made rules, expectations, or necessities.

They are the kind of people who put their lives at risk to save strangers and then think nothing of it and never say a word about it. It is as if their brains and their hearts don’t work as they do for all the rest of us.

In a funny way, they are alien — as if from another world.

Certainly a better world, if such a place exists.

When I tell you that being a therapist is privilege, in part, it is because it has allowed me to know just a few people like this.

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The top photo, Caring Hands, is described as follows: “An Iraqi girl from the Janabi Village waits in line with her dad to be examined by an Iraqi doctor, Yusufiyah, Iraq, March 02, 2008. The Medical Operation was conducted by U.S. Soldiers from Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division and the Sons of Iraq (Abna al-Iraq).” The U.S. Army photo was taken by Spc. Luke Thornberry.

The next photo, also from 2008, is called A Caring Mom, taken by  A Frank Wouters.

The final image is Helping the Homeless by Ed Yourdan. The author writes:

This was taken about halfway up the block on the east side of Broadway, between 79th and 80th Street (in New York City). It’s at the north end of the “Filene’s Basement” store on the corner, and it’s a place where I’ve often seen homeless people holding up a sign that asks for assistance…

With very rare exceptions, I haven’t photographed these homeless people; it seems to me that they’re in a very defensive situation, and I don’t want to take advantage of their situation. But something unusual was happening here: the two women (who were actually cooperating, and acting in tandem, despite the rather negative demeanor of the woman on the left) were giving several parcels of food to the young homeless man on the right.

I don’t know if the women were bringing food from their own kitchen, or whether they had brought it from a nearby restaurant. But it was obviously a conscious, deliberate activity, and one they had thought about for some time…

What was particularly interesting was that they didn’t dwell, didn’t try to have a conversation with the young man; they gave him the food they had brought, and promptly walked away. As they left, I noticed the young man peering into his bag (the one you see on the ground beside him in this picture) to get a better sense of the delicious meal these two kind women had brought him…

All three images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Generosity and Kindness: A Story of Political Incorrectness

Cats in bed 1970    - copyright Lisl Steiner

For some people, life is a choice between kindness and survival, trust and paranoia, generosity and miserliness.

As my mom used to say about herself, “People say I’m kind, but what I want to know is, what kind?”

It was a rhetorical question, of course, mostly intended for amusement, but could be understood as raising a very important issue for everyone: who am I and what is my relationship to my fellow-man? What, if anything, do I owe him?

We see it asked and answered all the time: in response to charitable solicitations, in requests for advice or assistance, and in decisions we make about whom to help (perhaps only family, friends, co-religionists, or countrymen) and those whose pleadings are ignored or disdained.

Most of us aren’t as kind as we could be, but have benefited from the kindness of others. I am certainly one such person who has had the good luck to have been on the receiving end of considerable generosity of spirit. And that, of course, leads to a story.

During my second year in graduate school I was a research assistant. In return for tuition and a stipend on which to live, I coordinated the research data-gathering done by a number of Northwestern undergraduates who worked for my advisor. The latter was a big man in his mid to late-30s. I learned a lot from him about the proper attitude toward social science research and how to do it.

I remember one of the first communications I ever had from him included a line about his intention “to work with me and on me.” That he did, much to my benefit. Coincidentally enough, his work focused on altruism, defined as the quality of unselfish concern for the wellbeing of others that is so highly prized, at least in the abstract, by most of the major world religions.

As I said, my mentor was a big man, with a personality to match. And, in that age just before the concept of “political correctness” became so firmly established as it is today, he would say, and get away with some outrageous statements.

My advisor occasionally referred to himself as “The Chief” or “The Big Chief” alluding to his size (about 6’6″) and his authority over those of us in his charge. But where he really went off the rails, I suppose, was in calling all of us — the undergraduates who collected his data and me as well — his “slaves.” I’m sure he meant no harm by this clumsy humor, but he was a colorful person and, as I noted, said some things that would have been over-the-line for most other people in a university setting.

One day he mentioned, very casually, that there would be a new “slave” coming to his lab the next day at 3:00 PM; he wasn’t going to be there, so he wanted me to greet her and show her the ropes — let her know what she needed to know and do in order to collect his data and to receive the “independent study” credit that would be her academic reward for helping “The Chief” with his research. By now I had instructed and supervised his undergrad helpers for quite some time, so I thought nothing of his request and simply made certain to be in his lab at the appointed time the next day.

Sure enough, at 3:00 PM precisely the following afternoon, I heard a knock on his laboratory door. I turned and saw a very pretty and well-dressed young woman.

“Is Professor X there?” she asked.

“Oh, you must be the new ‘slave.'”

It was then, and only then, perhaps a quarter of a second after I’d said those words, that I realized something especially critical to the interchange and perhaps, to the rest of my life:

She was black.

“Oh my God,” I thought to myself. “What have I done? What is she going to do?” These and other thoughts flashed through my now feverish brain, as my entire life — my entire unrealized future — passed before my eyes and perhaps out of my reach forever.

I do not remember what precisely I then said. But, I know it was some form of apology and explanation. I’m sure it was inadequate. Certainly I told her how the awful word was used in the context of the Professor’s lab — the bad joke some of us had too readily imitated — as opposed to the world of civil rights, the history of slavery in the USA, and so on.

And then something amazing happened.

This charming young black woman accepted my explanation and apology.

She didn’t complain to my advisor or the Chairman of the Psychology Department, or the Dean or the President of Northwestern University. She didn’t call the Chicago Tribune or the Chicago Sun Times so that they could run a front page story. She didn’t contact a local or national radio or TV station to report the wrong done to her. She didn’t file a law suit against me and the University. Nor did she contact the NAACP or get her older brother, assuming she had one, to break my legs.

I would have deserved it. Any of it. All of it.

Yes, it’s true, I meant no harm.

It is also true that at the moment I saw her, had I been more racially conscious, my brain probably would have registered BLACK PERSON, BLACK PERSON, BLACK PERSON!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Or worse.

And, in that event, I wouldn’t have said what I said.

But instead, it simply registered pretty girl!

And so I spoke the unspeakable, entirely to my discredit.

No excuses here, just an explanation, but I was certainly wrong and deserved some sort of punishment.

My life could have been irrevocably altered that day. But for the generosity and kindness of someone I didn’t know, someone who owed me nothing, someone who I had just injured, I might be doing something very different from practicing clinical psychology; someone very different from a Ph.D. graduate of a major university.

As my friend Rich Adelstein has written elsewhere, “all of us (who received financial support for our education) have been helped in the course of our lives by many kind and generous people whom we never met and whose names we never knew.”

I sure have and also by one particular person who I did meet and who heard my tactless speech before she knew anything else about me.

As Blanche Dubois says in the Tennessee Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

I haven’t always depended on it.

But I am enormously grateful to have received such kindness more times than I deserve; and especially grateful to a pretty Northwestern undergrad for the uncommon grace and beneficence she showed me at precisely 3:00 in the afternoon on a day many years ago.

The above image is Love in the Afternoon 1970 by Lisl Steiner, with permission: http://www.lislsteiner.com