Lately I have been thinking quite a bit about the surfeit of indifference in this country. It seems that with each passing year, more and more of us demonstrate an utter lack of compassion for our fellow man. No one seems to care that their words are hurtful, or that their actions may be putting other people at risk. They couldn’t care less about negative consequences for others as long as those consequences don’t touch them in any way. I just don’t get it.
Bad behavior seems to be everywhere you look these days. But I do have to remind myself that insensitivity bordering on cruelty is not new. What follows is a story about my grandmother, whom I never got to meet, as told to me by my mother, her daughter-in-law.
My grandmother’s mother passed away when she was quite young. Her father abandoned her, and she was raised by much older, childless aunts in Bellacastle, County Mayo, on the Irish coast. Apparently these aunts were rather no nonsense in their child rearing. Stern. The house was to remain quiet. They didn’t allow her to have any toys at all. (When my mother heard this, she gave my grandmother a doll for Christmas, causing her to cry.)
My grandmother came to America while still a teenager, probably to get away from those aunts, and she became a waitress in New York City. That’s where she met my grandfather, who was the owner/chef of the establishment. Apparently, he liked to tell her that the only reason he married her was so that he could stop paying her wages. If so, he was not the first to be insensitive toward her, and he wouldn’t be the last.
She couldn’t be blamed for thinking this cold cruelty was normal, given her upbringing. When their fourth child was about 6, my grandfather abandoned his family. My uncle’s earliest memory is of him walking up the street, carrying a suitcase and not once looking back. The man never paid one penny in child support, which must have been rather a tight bind to be in back in the late 1930’s.
But the story that sticks with me, the one that is the very definition of cruel insensitivity, is the following:
When my grandmother lost one of her children within days of its birth, she naturally went to her priest for solace, as she was a devout Catholic. She asked him if her baby was in Heaven. The priest responded that since the child had not yet been baptized, it was not in Heaven, it was in Limbo.
Because of that, and because of her beliefs, my grandmother got to go through life imagining that poor child forever trapped on the border of Hell. Not quite damned, but unredeemed by Jesus Christ. If her baby was in Limbo, then she felt that it must be lost, forgotten, unwanted, religiously cast aside. He was a helpless little baby, and no help would be forthcoming for all eternity. I can think of no worse concept for a devout parent who has lost an infant.
And yes, the Limbo of unbaptized infants was the theological concept of the most conservative priests at the time, but what purpose did it serve to tell this distraught young mother this? What good did it do to pile on even more grief? Should that be in any religious leader’s job description? She had done nothing wrong. The child definitely did nothing wrong. And yes, original sin, yadda yadda. But come on. There was no reason to be that despicable.
My mother told me that my grandmother did not step foot inside a church for decades after that. Seeing her in such pain did not sit well with my mother, so she immediately contacted the nearest priest, and asked him to come speak to my grandmother. (For the life of me, I do not know why her own children never thought to do this. But I digress.)
This priest was much younger, and was decades removed from the harsh condemnation of his misguided brother. He was of a much different theological era. He asked my grandmother one simple question.
“Did you love your child?”
Naturally, she said yes. And therefore he responded that her child was definitely with God.
She had decades of pain to cry out of her body before she could really form a sentence after that, but she did start attending Mass again. Of course she still mourned her first child, but now she at least got to believe that he was in a better place; a place where he was loved.
That second priest came from a place of compassion. He knew before he spoke that he was there to offer comfort, and he did so. I am not Catholic, but I would have loved this man for his pure decency.
Perhaps having heard this story so many times while growing up had more of an impact on me than I realized. I have always resisted rigid indoctrination of any kind. I chafe at dogma. I question authority.
People who refuse to be flexible and take specific circumstances into account before speaking or acting are anathema to me. I don’t believe any one person can always be right, and I have a hard time tolerating people who prefer to be right than to be kind. When someone shows you their soft underbelly, the place within them that causes them the most pain, even if you can’t relate to their point of view, is it really necessary to take a sword to it? Do you have to emotionally eviscerate someone just so you can be declared the winner of your debate?
If so, then we are all doomed.
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