Whether the memory originated from a personal experience or from a story I read or heard about, it touched a nerve that remains raw more than more than thirty years later. Details of the memory have blurred over time, but its core remains firmly intact; an infected sore that won’t heal, no matter how much time passes.
Time—a surrogate, like an antibiotic salve applied to an excruciating emotional trauma—is said to heal all wounds. But some injuries are so grim and painful that they are burned into the psyche like brands on cattle. The passage of time cannot remove the scars. The disfigurement becomes a permanent reminder of the damage that created the disfigurement. New experiences may tamper with one’s recollection of the original injury, poking at the scab left behind. The new damage might poke at the original scar, causing it to crack and bleed again. No matter the cause, though, the original searing emotional damage resurfaces from time to time, crippling one’s ability to forget and forgive.
The original memory took root when I lived in Chicago, I think. In response to her husband’s diagnosis—cancer, I think—the woman announced that she was leaving him, saying something to the effect that, “When I married you, I didn’t sign up to ruin my life by spending all my remaining time caring for a sick, dying old man. You can pay someone to empty your bed pans and wipe your butt; I’m not about to do it.” I had never witnessed such monstrous abandonment. The level of selfishness…the absence of compassion…the utter lack of even a shred of love…was stunning. That a person could be so incredibly cruel and indifferent to the effect of her renunciation of what I assumed was an earlier lifelong commitment was stunning. It was unreal to me. Could a person who presumably had expressed love and a lifelong commitment really and truly and suddenly become so callous and unloving? The man’s trust in his wife—and in humankind—must have instantly degraded into…something…an emotion so unspeakably painful as to completely break not only his heart but the hearts of anyone within earshot. His belief in love must have dissolved in an instant. Expressions of love, from that point forward, must have seemed to be noxious vapor escaping from the mouths of heartless beasts.
Ever since then, when I have heard someone say—even as a so-called “joke” meant to elicit a laugh or a groan—something reminiscent of the idea that “If you get sick, I’m not going to wipe your butt,” I cringe. To me, that kind of “joke” probably hides—very poorly—a very real sentiment. It tends to make me deeply skeptical of the speaker’s capacity for compassion. Immediately, my guard is raised. Any trust I might have had in the person is buried beneath a thick layer of suspicion. Any protestations that it was ‘just a joke” fall on not deaf, but deeply skeptical, ears. Trustworthy people do not openly display, even in jest, their willingness to abandon the trust placed in them, for a “laugh.” Whether or not they actually follow through on their “just joking” announced abandonment, I would always assume they would, at the very least, resent fulfilling obligations that would infringe on their selfishness. Notwithstanding any evidence to the contrary, I think I would forever assume any of their behaviors that conflict with their absence of compassion to be performances designed with their own benefits in mind. Does that make me an unforgiving skeptic who refuses to permit such people to ever earn his trust? Probably. And it probably makes me someone who tries to protect himself against the damage such people could cause for him. And it makes me someone suspicious of behaviors that even hint at such mercilessness. And, yes, it might make me merciless, too, and selfishly so. So how do I defend my own mercilessness while condemning it in others? That is a hard question. One for which I cannot seem to find an answer.