When I was driving into work on Tuesday morning, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I decided that I’d give my students a King quote for their quickwrite. The one I chose was:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
I projected the quote onto the screen and had my students write about it for eight minutes, then we had a discussion. It became an incredibly deep discussion, which is always exciting when you’re a teacher. As we were wrapping up and transitioning to Romeo and Juliet, one of my students asked where the quote came from.
When I told them, one of them noted, “Oh, Martin Luther King … so THAT’s why you chose it.”
It was … and it wasn’t.
Let’s face it, America is going to change when Donald Trump becomes president. Trump’s candidacy and election have scarred me deeply on a personal level, and I spend far more time thinking about unhappy things than I should.
During that drive to work (it’s about forty minutes), I got thinking about the people that say, “Invite a Syrian refugee to stay with you!” or “Why don’t you pay higher taxes if that’s how you feel?” I know people that say these things. I even like some of these people.
But I don’t understand them.
Why? Because I have an inherent need to help, to fix, to make life better for others. My mother used to tear her hair out over it (I once gave away a brand new and evidently very expensive jacket to a child on the bus that had no jacket and lived in a very poor neighborhood); she referred to me as “a social worker”, and it was not meant as a compliment.
I understand my mom’s frustration now, since I have tried desperately to help people before and gotten burned badly as a result. The student I lent $100 and never got back (I no longer loan students money as a result). My abusive alcoholic ex-husband. You know, the usual suspects.
There are a couple of recent attempted random acts of kindness, however, that have gone shockingly awry. Those are the ones that keep me up, those strangers that myself and my family went way out on a limb for, and we ended up feeling guilty and sort of like the bad guy.
This summer, a woman and her three children moved in across the street. We noticed immediately that she was always hollering at her kids, even yelling swears and epithets like, “I’m going to kill you!”, but a DCYF report was pointless unless we had “video evidence”. It upset all of us, needless to say.
One summer day, when it was 98 degrees and humid (which, in New Hampshire, is unbearable and, if you’re me, means you’re not leaving the air conditioner for anything), I was watching out the window as this woman tried to move a couch into her house. It wasn’t going well, and her kids were running into the traffic, throwing rocks at her to impede her progress, and poking a dead bird with a stick. She finally sat down on the couch, put her head in her hands, and started sobbing.
I called down to Jeff and told him that I was going to go try to help her get her house inside. Being more suited for this duty (and well aware of how pleasant I am after three minutes in the heat), Jeff volunteered to go in my place.
Long story short, we were soon babysitting the kids every Monday night while their mother went to visit her ex-boyfriend in jail. We’d feed them, keep them from hurting each other, and try to teach them some manners and control. In return, they would break our kids’ toys and throw epic, loud battles when it was time for them to go home.
Once school started, the thankless babysitting gig got to be too much for us, so she stopped asking after we said no once (I think one of our kids was legitimately sick). It was honestly something of a relief, although it made us all sad that the kids were stuck getting screamed at all the time.
Anyway, over Christmas vacation, I got a text from her out of the clear blue sky asking if we could watch the kids for two consecutive days from 8-5:30.
I said no.
No reply, no “Thanks anyway”, no “Thank you for all the times you did watch them”, nothing.
The other situation involved a guy that wanders around neighborhoods asking to do odd jobs for cash. I was petrified of him, but Jeff would hire him to mow the lawn or something. It got to the point where he was doing bigger jobs, but he was also coming over ALL THE TIME trying to find jobs to do so we’d pay him.
It got out of control when he was injured in an accident, and we felt bad for him and fronted him money that we couldn’t afford to front. He then came and did the agreed-upon work, but he wanted to be paid for it. It got very ugly, and he spent a lot of time begging Jeff to hire him again.
He said no.
So even bleeding heart liberals have a breaking point, I guess. Being taken advantage of and used isn’t pleasant …
However, I would rather live a hundred scenarios like these then not try at all. You see, I know that the few times mine hand has gotten burned for reaching out and trying to help, memorable and painful as they are, is both a warning and an affirmation.
I could stop trying to help people in need. Yeah, those people going on and on about the Syrian refugees when we have people in need of help right here–I don’t see them stepping up. I did, and I’m not sorry. If my fatal flaw is a desire to help others, then so be it.
I would rather help other people genuinely and at their level of need than sit around looking down at them.
It was easy to look down on the screaming and incompetent mother, the would-be handyman who we suspect fell off the opiate wagon after being put on painkillers following his accident. I’m not proud; I looked down on both of them, both before and when I was trying to help them. This is not something I’m proud of, but I’m being completely honest here.
I take pride in being a good person, one who helps others in times of need, but there is a part of me that knows that pride is dark and ugly and perhaps influences how some situations end up. Who knows?
My students got talking about King’s quote vis a vis being a good and “loving” person and driving out the darkness through that, but they also recognized (and vocalized) that we are all a balance of good and bad.
I can tell you from personal experience, some dark will not allow any late, no matter how brightly you may shine; some people will never allow love to replace hate. It’s just the nature of the human beast.
I have always tried to help, particularly the downtrodden, and I will continue to do so no matter the cost.
If that makes me a bleeding heart liberal, so be it.
I am a work in progress, and I will never stop trying.