Hope is the Thing with Feathers

One morning recently, the local paper was full of the kind of news that makes me cry. Besides the riots in London and the politicians in Washington, and an economy that only a bankruptcy attorney could love, there were these: A 16-year-old boy convicted of raping an 83-year-old woman. A 12-year-old boy charged with raping a 2-year-old girl.

What kind of a world do we live in? Is there any hope for us? The perpetrators are only children themselves. What happened to those boys to damage them so badly that they could do something like that? What is it to have a soul so tarnished and blackened—at the age of 12!— that a deed like that is even imaginable. What are we doing wrong, and is there any way to save these wretched children, before (or—is it possible?—after) they reach this horrible point?

These thoughts stayed with me through the morning, and followed me on my errands. I took them with me into Walmart and shuffled down the aisles mechanically, my thoughts in a painful place. It hurt.

So I wandered with my agony, and after a while it occurred to me to try a different perspective. I looked up from the giant box of variety melons in front of me, and focused on my breathing. I felt myself come back into my body. I began to feel hope inside, and spreading outward again.

And with hope came love. I began to love everyone there very much, yes right there in Walmart. I loved the little girl with her black hair hanging down her back like a cape, pointing long brown fingers at a box of cheerios, explaining something to her mother in Spanish. I loved the little boy with his close-cropped kinky black hair and elegant pink chocolate fingers silently touching each overripe plum in turn. I loved the woman with her pasty purple-veined thighs so fat her knees turned outward, rocking like a hobby horse toward the checkout line. I looked around and loved them all soooo much and it began to feel wonderful, like I was in a wide open space communing with all these precious connected souls.

I thought how simple the answer is: Just love. Just love everyone into wholeness again. There is hope! We will save the children!

I breathed in the beauty, and I looked at the man with the grey and black hair and the stubble on his lip walking toward me, and he looked back at me and we locked eyes. I started to smile, and he crooked one lip up sideways and communicated with me in that universally understood language: He reached down, grabbed his crotch and thrust his hips at me.

Aaaand… that was it. World contracted inward again, knotty tense spot in my belly, twisted contraction of my lips. Disgust.

“Oh God,” I thought, “Do I have to love HIM too?”

I pushed my cart away, thinking that saving the children would be so much easier if maybe there weren’t so many creepy people.

And I thought to myself, he’s like a weed. No. He’s like a pepper plant maybe, gone to seed too early. So much potential in a tiny seed, but grown into something rangy and worthless.

Under ideal conditions, pepper plants produce bountiful leaves and a strong, elegant structure before eventually producing flowers and fruit, gifting the world with both beauty and food. But if you starve a pepper plant early on—maybe you plant it in poor soil and never water it—the plant will struggle and strive and grow gangly in its search for nourishment.

Eventually, it will lose hope and spend the rest of its pathetic life relentlessly producing as many seeds as it possibly can as quickly as it can. They will be small, and of poor quality, but from the plant’s point of view, it may be the only chance it ever has of contributing anything to the world.

In other words, the plant becomes a creepy old man, scraggly and thin and ugly, sending his seed in any direction he can as fast as he can.

But the scraggly, ugly, gross old guy was once upon a time a little growing person, full with potential. A little, sad, impoverished boy who eventually gave up on hope. And I believe the child is still perched in there, somewhere, like Emily Dickinson’s feathered hope that sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.

By this time, I had reached the check-out line with my peaches and plums and low fat cheese sticks. The cashier smiled at me. She had close-pressed black hair, large black eyes, and dark skin so smooth it was impossible to guess her age. Her name was Rebecca, and she was an easy one to love. So I asked about her children (one, boy, age 22, looking for a job after being laid off by Fed Ex), and we talked about the economy, and how broken our society is. We both shook our heads a lot and made disapproving “hmm” sounds.

I grabbed my bags one by one and set them in the cart. Before Rebecca turned to the next customer, I shook my head one last time and said, “I sure wish we had some answers.” She nodded, “But we do!” she said. And this is when I knew everything would be okay. She said:

“The answer is just love. Just love and love and love. We just have to love more and spread it more. Just love!”

If we’re to find a solution, if we’re to put this broken world back together, it’s going to have to be by love. Love not just for the good and fun and easy bits, the Rebeccas, and the satin-haired girls, and the soft-fingered boys. We’re going to have to figure out how to love the gross old guys and the crotchety old ladies and the gang leaders and the perverts. Yes, even the perverts.

You can’t fix anything, especially not something as complex as the whole world, by ignoring the broken bits or shoving them in a corner. You have to fix them. And the only thing that ever truly fixed a person is love. Tough love sometimes, but always love.

If we’re going to save the children, we are going to have to love all the broken bits back into wholeness. Including the children who rape. And the adults who took away their hope. And the people who hate them so much they want them to die.

It sounds easy when preachers quote it from the pulpit, all that nonsense about loving your neighbor.

But Jesus never said it would be easy. He said we’re supposed to love our enemies, too. And prostitutes. And all those people of other ethnicities and backgrounds, and even our oppressors.

I think he was on to something.

I’m working on loving everyone I meet, no matter how hard it may be. That doesn’t mean I have to let people trample on me, or that I have to smile back when they’re vulgar. No more than loving my children means I pat them on the head and smile sweetly when they’re being ugly. Sometimes love is tough.

But it does mean I’ll be looking for what is good in each person, what is worthy. It means I will try to be kind and forgiving. It means I’ll be looking for that beautiful child, the one hiding under layers of trauma and disillusionment, still singing the tune without words. And when I see the child in there, I’ll smile and wave, and tell her I love her.

Of course, I can’t save the whole world alone. I can’t rescue all those little boys who might some day rape and murder. But maybe together we could. If Rebecca’s right… If Jesus was right… then the answer is just love. Just love and love and love. Just love!

I believe they are right. I believe there is hope for us. Who else wants to try?

9 responses to “Hope is the Thing with Feathers

  1. I want to try!!!!!! I LOVE THIS POST. it makes me want to jump up and down. I think I have found a soul sister in you! WOW!

    “All us stumblers who believe love rules, stand up and let it shine.”
    Bruce Cockburn:

    I’m going to post a link to this on my blog if you don’t mind.

  2. Your comment makes ME want to jump up and down! I do believe you are right about being soul sisters. I love the Internet because it helps me find the people who are easy for me to love… and who help me love the people who aren’t.

    And yes of course I would love for you to post a link. 😀

  3. It’s easier to find the love for others, even though they are difficult to love, if you can find love for your own self.

    If you are feeling down on yourself, and can’t find the happiness within, it is harder to see the beauty of the world outside.

    Perhaps when we pray for peace, we must pray first for peace within.

    • Thank you, Bridget! That means a lot to me. And I couldn’t agree more with Conely. I’ve had to do a lot of work to learn to love myself, and it’s also a work in progress. 🙂 One of my favorite related exercises is to write a letter to yourself as a child, telling you all the things you wish a grown-up had told you, and all the things you would want to tell another little kid in your situation. That went a LONG way toward helping me realize that the things I hated in myself were forgivable and that I was worthy of self-love. Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

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