When I was little, my mother’s car broke down and we were stranded on the side of the road – at some point a group of Hell’s Angels pulled over. I was scared but my mother told me not to worry. When they got off their bikes, my mother clasped her hands in prayer and said, “Thank god you’re here! I prayed for good people and here you are!” I remember their smiling faces and the questions they asked me about school while one of them worked under the hood of our car.
My mother believed if you give people an opportunity to be good at heart, they will almost always follow through. And though there was probably an element of privilege to her philosophy, the circumstances of my mother’s life kind of gridlocked her in a way, so that she had no choice but to practice it. For three years, she managed this motel where most people lived long term and had parole officers. My mother lived on the property and wound up spending most of her days listening to the stories of wounded souls. Many of these people weren’t the sorts she would have chosen to spend her time with, but over time, they inadvertently taught her that her judgments were just that – judgments. The way people behaved had very little to do with their behind-the-scenes. And my mother began to realize the behind-the-scenes of all people were pretty much the same. Underneath the hate and anger and very poor judgment, was the truth of their pain- someone broke or damaged or betrayed their heart and they didn’t know what to do about it. My mother soothed their wounds simply by listening and let them know she cared by helping them find jobs and social services. She believed that once a person realized someone cared about them, a little slime would melt off their heart.
I remember once visiting my mother at the motel, sitting there in her little garden area where she’d smoke her ciggies, and one of her residents ran over to share his triumph of the day. He’d bought a new jacket and said, “I jewed ‘em down. It’s a cunt hair too small but it looks perty good, huh?” My mother winked at me and gave the guy her special look, the one where she cocked her head with a closed-lip smile- told him how thrilled she was to hear his good news – and then proceeded to explain the importance of editing his language so as not alienate the entire civilized human population. My mother didn’t feel she needed to share that she’d been born Jewish and how dare he carelessly malign an entire population of people while also defiling her genitalia in the same breath. My mother believed one of the worst things you could do to a person’s face was to shame them. That shaming people had the potential to ignite more anger rather than eliminate it. She believed from her experience that people like this were not purposely hateful, they just hadn’t had the opportunity to go out into the vast world and be expanded by it- instead they’d only been exposed and re-exposed to the same sorts of dysfunctional people who broke their hearts in the first place. My mother realized once someone revealed their behind-the-scenes, she could get through to them, introduce ideas of kindness and understanding, and over time maybe even recommend a book or movie that might broaden their perspective.
My mother used to tell me that hate begins the moment a person feels ignored, violated, threatened, or dismissed, and that most people aren’t even being violated or threatened – just a dismissive comment can send some people into a homicidal rage. And because so many people don’t have the tools to understand that it’s not other people’s job to make us feel worthwhile, the hierarchy of hate that begins in one’s own mind can easily branch out to one’s parents and one’s spouse and one’s children and one’s neighbors and one’s country until pretty much they’re shouting at the whole world. And unfortunately every now and then, some hate-filled person comes along whose need to avenge himself is so unprecedented he will recruit other enraged people and organize their hate to make themselves feel not only better than, but the best. I wonder what my mother would say about these white supremacists goose-stepping into the White House, believing that god sees them as better than so many others. I think she would remind me that their behind-the-scenes is probably still the same as everyone else’s. And to be wary of hating these hateful people, even when they give us such good reasons to. I bet she would tell me to stay away from them, and if I happen to run into one of their followers, to meet them behind-the-scenes by offering kindness and understanding. My mother was really so great at this. She had such a tough but unassuming way about her. If a white supremacist had stayed in her motel and vocalized his ideology, she would have probably laughed her compassionate cackle and said something like, “Come on. Get with the program. You are not a child of the sun. You are a child of your dysfunctional parents. Now, open your heart and go do something constructive with your brain that doesn’t land your ass back in jail.”
In some ways, the circumstances of my own life have also gridlocked me into understanding the behind-the-scenes of people. I live in a rural area now. I have friends that I would never have met if I hadn’t moved here. On the morning my mother passed, this one friend of mine drove her twins to her mother-in-law’s, and then brought her other daughter over to my house to keep Brautigan company so I could be whoever I needed to be in my hours of utter anguish. She is one of the most kind people I have ever met. And guess what– she’s a hunter and loves Jesus and voted for Trump. We’d never discussed politics before, because we’re both more conceptual than political, but we discussed other difficult topics and I always found her one of the most open people when I shared ideas she hadn’t thought of before, and I hope she thinks the same of me. So instead of dismissing this person, I look forward to having more behind-the-scenes conversations with her and with other people who grew in different cultures than mine. And I hope we can all emerge with bigger hearts for ourselves and each other and for all people everywhere.
My mother had a lot of wisdom but she also had a lot of problems. Even though she was present to the behind-the-scenes of others, she never trusted anyone enough to reveal the deepest parts of her own. And the ways she tried to keep her secrets at bay killed her in the end. And I understand that same fear of sharing, because I have it too. I hate the parts of myself that cause me so much pain. The ways I take everything personally and feel at times like my thoughts are a tourniquet over my existence. And I don’t have all the answers for myself about how to be free. About how to express my own hurt and anger in a constructive enough way so that it doesn’t hurt anyone in my vicinity. About how to protest injustices on the front lines and also be responsible for the injustices I create in my own little world. About how to stand up to hate and still be available to connect with the behind-the-scenes of anyone who happens to enter my vicinity. I guess I’ll keep practicing. Keep noticing my thoughts and my intentions. And pray for forgiveness, peace, and sanity.