It is strange the way a cruel word can inflict a wound that won’t heal.
Behind us at the pizzeria last week were a quartet of old ladies playing cards, and in the corner a group of teenagers clustered in a booth. At my table I was busy trying to keep my 17-month-old son amused. His newest game was to give a quick shriek whenever he was feeling bored. My older children were behaving themselves quite well for kids who’d been in the car all day. And then, as we were finishing our meal, the baby gave one more yip.
“Shut up!” screamed one of the ladies.
Our table froze. I stared each woman in the face, and I hope I may never again see such coldness and hostility.
“I’m sorry,” I said in a voice that shook more I meant it to. “I am sorry that a little child offends you.”
One woman fidgeted. “He’s been screaming ever since you brought him in,” she said, gilding the exaggeration with the very slightest defensive edge.
I repeated myself.
“Poor parenting skills,” said the screamer. The ladies tsked in agreement. As I herded my now tearful children out of the restaurant, the table of teenagers started cheering and applauding the courageous stand of the cardsharks.
Externally I was calm, but driving gave me another hour to brood. My eyes were hot and prickly behind my sunglasses as I tried to breathe easily and pray a chaplet of Divine Mercy for the ladies, the young people, and the entire situation.
I prayed, “For the sake of his sorrowful passion.” But in my mind I thought: Did you often find it helpful, in your long experience, to scream “Shut up!” at a toddler?
I tried to clear my thoughts and focus on prayer: “Have mercy on us …” But my mind went back to what I would say to the unkind woman at the restaurant: Meet my baby. Would you like to tell him to shut up to his face? How did you shut your kids up? Would you prefer that I slap him? Is that what you did?
I tried to reject these thoughts. I knew that nothing I could have said would have mattered in that moment. Hardness of heart is only softened by the Holy Spirit. I believed that the woman only made the “poor parenting” crack because she felt defensive. I hoped that I would never be so distant that I would forget what it was like to have babies.
My thoughts continued: Hate must leave a spiritual mark, I thought. Had any of the ladies felt ashamed afterward? Would they remember my stare? What about the young people? What if two of them had been dating, and one was so appalled by the other’s behavior that they broke up right then? And I continued to pray: “For the sake of his sorrowful passion.”
When I returned home I still couldn’t let go of the hurt I felt over this incident. At Sunday Mass, during the Eucharistic prayer I felt such anger that it was as if I was under attack. I tried to listen to the words of the consecration, but every time I wrenched my attention back to the Mass, I kept thinking of snappy fantasy comebacks.
I realized I needed to go to confession. I needed to tell the priest: “Since my last confession, I’ve hated someone. I was at a restaurant with my baby, and a lady said to me…” Tears welled up in my eyes at the mere thought of speaking this out loud. All I could do was trust that the healing power of the Eucharist would work on me. And it did, for a while.
But rage kept bubbling up, almost consuming me. I thought I’d let it go earlier, but I hadn’t. If this was how I felt about a minor injustice, how must it be for people who’ve had to deal all their lives with systematic abuse and cruelty? How hard must it be to forgive, and how deeply must those wounds run? A line from a hymn came to my mind: “If you are lost, look to the cross.” We need a God who has suffered more than we have to put all of our injuries into perspective. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. I thought more about what I would say to the woman at the pizzeria: Look at my baby. He looks like my brothers. It’s easy to be cruel when you don’t have to deal with an actual person, isn’t it? “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
What a deep wound hatred leaves, what an ugly welt. I like to think of myself as an even-tempered, rational person, but my life has been comparatively free of major scarring events. How long will it take for this to move to the back burner of my consciousness” how long before I stop thinking about alternate scenarios and petty revenge fantasies? Maybe someone filmed it and will put it on Youtube, and the whole world will rise up in indignation.
I knew I didn’t want that to happen, so I prayed: “Father, forgive me for I know not what I do.”