Last summer, my mother fell seriously ill. We thought, for several days, that she was dying. My four brothers and I gathered at the regional hospital in the small city where she lives, preparing for the worst. We said our goodbyes. But that time we were fortunate; eventually she rallied and survived, and she’s still with us. The crisis passed.
I woke at about 4 the other morning, thinking about my brown daughter and my brown sons, about the dangers they’ll face. The fear I feel is different, of course, from what I experienced with my mother. I wonder whether my children will ever find a place in this world where they can be safe. And by safe, I don’t mean free from any possibility of harm. No one has that. I only wonder whether they’ll they find a community that accepts and encourages them for who they are, a place without a thousand large and small indicators telling them they are less than.
I awoke thinking of all the ways the world can harm the ones I love, and all the suffering people and creatures on this planet that I don’t even know. I woke up feeling useless; I woke up feeling out of control.
One night during my mother’s illness, one of my brothers and I sat in the hospital room with her as she slept. He and I hadn’t really spoken in depth for a long time. Generally when we get together for holidays we see sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews; we argue over sports and whatever‘s happening in the world; and, of course, we tell stories about one another and the trouble we got into as boys. We laugh, recounting who did what to whom. But this time, between my brother and me, there wasn’t much of that.
I try to live in such a way that I leave less suffering in the world. I think about the effects of my actions. With whom do I interact? In what ways do I use my words? How do my thoughts and feelings influence the way I treat others? How consciously do I reflect on and decide what products I buy or what I watch on TV? What are the things I take into and put from me?
But my sense of helplessness about my effect on the world persists because the uncertainty about it is real. I don’t control the long-term results of my actions. I don’t know how my decisions will turn out. Given that, how much change can I bring about in the world? What good can this single, limited self do? It’s tempting to say, “Well, if I can’t be sure that it’ll do any good, why bother? Why face reality if I don’t know whether I can change it?”
That night at my mother’s bedside, the conversation between my brother and I took an unusual turn. We ended up talking less about our memories of what the other had done and more about who the other had been. Instead of recounting events, we each shared our impressions of the other—character and temperament and personality—and how the other’s way of being had made deep marks on each of us that we still carried.
We realized each of us often saw himself in terms of what he had (or hadn’t) done. But our thoughts of the other brother centered on who he had been. While each had, over the years, preoccupied himself with his own flaws, what I spoke to him and he spoke to me was admiration for what we had represented to one another. The love between us didn’t rest in doing but in being. And I know there have been times that simply remembering the kind of person he was had encouraged and strengthened me.
The memory of our conversation reminds me that not just my actions but my being itself matters. I make the choices I make not just because of what they might achieve, but because of the person I want to be: the kind who faces reality, the kind who, at the end, can truthfully say, “Well, at least I looked life in the face and didn’t look away.”
My conversation with my brother reminded me that who I am leaves traces on those I encounter. I have no idea what others will do with those traces. I have no idea what differences, if any, they’ll make. Despite what our culture encourages us to pretend, no one knows that. Our play at certainty may be our deepest make-believe.
However limited my ability to shape my children’s world, the way I choose to exist can give them a sense of how to be themselves. I feel so much fear for these human beings I‘ve helped make and raise and will someday turn over to the world. But in the end, the only—and the most important—thing I can send with them is who and how I’ve been. All I can teach them is the way I try to embody my values, the memory of my questions, the memory of my words.
So when I write, I consider what kinds of words will come from me, not only because of their effect on the reader but even more because those words will speak the truth about me to those I love. Words are one of the most fundamental ways I exist. And I can only hope the words my children take away from me will be enough.