A Zen koan is a short parable that gives us something to think about that snaps us out of our routine mindset. One of my favorites goes like this: A neophyte monk goes to his master in the Buddhist temple where he has gone to live and says, “I've been here a few months, and I've been meditating for 12 hours a day, and I don't think it's working for me. As much as I try to find the Eternal Quiet of Being, I feel – underneath it all – as though I am a bottle that is filled with gunpowder and could explode at any moment. Can you explain why I feel this way?” The master nodded serenely and said, “You feel this way because everyone feels this way.”
I don't know if everyone feels as though they were going to explode, but I certainly can relate to the idea that we all struggle and yet, we forget that everyone else has their own struggles as well. Today is Mother's Day, and my mother passed away nine years ago. Some days I miss her so much I find myself crying while sitting all alone in my truck as I'm driving to work. Other times, I go months without thinking of her at all. Like the Zen koan above, I feel my own relationship with my mother is uniquely complicated, but I suppose the truth really is that everybody's relationship with their mother is uniquely complicated.
Although it is difficult sometimes to explain to people the benefits of a rhetorical education, one boon is the ability to use words to make subtle (but important) distinctions. Throughout my life, I don't think I ever had a moment when I didn't love my mother, but I had many stages in my life when I didn't like her very much. As a child, I had expectations that my mother was never able to meet, and it wasn't until I was well into my adulthood that I was able to understand enough of my mother's own history to comprehend that it was her own struggles with life that prevented her from being the mother I felt I deserved. It's difficult even now with her being gone all this time to explain how the pains of my childhood have molded the man I am today, and, furthermore, regardless of how I wish now things had been different in the past: I am who I am, she was who she was, and underneath it all is not a bottle that could explode at any moment, but the enormity of grace that comes from learning how to forgive.
I grew up in an era in which “child abuse” existed as a matter of everyday existence, but did not exist as a recognizable classification of behavior; that is to say, during my childhood, nobody called it “child abuse,” people just referred to it as “parenting.” People who worked with my mother later in life used to tell me how kind and loving she was to them, and whenever I heard them say such things, I inevitably had a brief bout of vertigo that comes from cognitive dissonance. Whenever people told me how kind and loving my mother was, they were completely unaware they were talking about the woman who used to beat me as a child frequently and violently with a wide variety sticks and boards. My brothers and I were beaten so often by our mother that we became “connoisseurs” of beatings, and even now can reminiscence over the finer ones. “Remember when I was beaten for getting muddy at that construction site? Ah, that my friend, was a very good beating.”
It wasn't until decades into my adulthood that I was able to wrap my mind around that idea that my mother had been beaten during her own childhood and grew up believing that not beating your children is a form of neglect, and that somehow, beating children is a way of demonstrating that you care about them. Although I was frequently beaten as a child, I resolved growing up that I never was going to beat my own children. Although beatings were a regular feature of my childhood, somehow the concept that it was an essential (even “normal”) part of life never made it into my belief system the way it had been entrenched into my mother's.
I would be lying if I said I still don't feel the psychic wounds of my childhood thrashings. However, I think I can honestly say that I have learned to forgive them. I live with the hope that whatever psychic wounds I may have fostered on my children are forgiven as well. Time will tell; like the rookie monk, we don't understand what everyone else is going through.
Of all the things I held my mother accountable for as a child (in addition to resenting her beatings, I was disgruntled over her indifference to the way I was bullied by neighborhood children), I can nonetheless feel an astounding depth of gratitude for the things my mother did right. Pretty much at the top of that list is this: my mother took me to the library. When I look back at my childhood, I can remember the public library as well as my mother's kitchen. These trips to the library were magical. The idea that we could go to a place where we could surround ourselves with books and that we could take several of them home with us astonishes me even now as I relive those feelings of being allowed to choose to read anything I wanted. I escaped into books, and somewhere during those escapes, I picked up the odd idea that words were more important than welts. And that is why I revere words and the potential they hold to achieve what violence never will. And, that is perhaps the best definition I can give Rhetoric: the belief that people who achieve their ends by violence and coercion are inevitably flawed and corrupted by their faith in violence.
On this Mother's day, I am grateful that I learned, perhaps in worst way possible, that words are stronger than blows, love is stronger than fear, and forgiveness is the greatest strength of all. This morning I am missing my mother enough to cry again, by myself as I type this. Underneath it all is a bottle waiting to explode, and beneath that, love and forgiveness.
Keep thinking rhetorically and I'll be back next week.