Just like your mother used to tell you...
Today on my way to work, I saw a woman and young child walking together though downtown Charleston. They were holding hands and the mother was pointing up at something.
It could've been a bird or a building, I'm not quite sure. But to me, I was imagining the woman telling the youngster some kind of time-tested advice.
"Treat others how you want to be treated." "Always say 'please' and 'thank you.' " "Hold doors open for strangers." That sort of thing.
The reason why I automatically think of that when I see a parent and child together is because of my upbringing.
I can remember many instances from my childhood where my mother would use different opportunities to teach me these sorts of things, which I think are good lessons to be emphasized when you're young.
By the time I was an adolescent, it was just ingrained in me to be polite and courteous to people. It's something I don't even think about now. Today, for example, I was walking down the stairwell at work to go outside and have a cigarette (I really need to quit...but after my life is back in order) and this man was behind me. I held the door open for him and let him pass. He shot me a smile and said, "Why, thank you!"
The tone of his voice really projected gratitude. He was truly grateful that I held the door open for him. He didn't just give the automatic response of thanks. I was a little taken back by it at first. In my mind, I had only done a small task that is so reflexive for me. By the way this guy said "thank you" you would have thought people were slamming doors in his face his entire life. Like, I imagined he would be approaching the door, inches away from crossing the threshold, and some asshole would then slam the door square in his face.
While I was outside smoking, I got to thinking: Is it a good or bad thing that such actions become second nature to us?
In any given day, I'm sure I say "thank you" at least 20, 30 times, many of which I don't remember.
Are we truly expressing gratitude, or are we merely regurgitating what was beat into our soft little heads when we were young?
The gentleman I held the door open for was probably in his mid 50s, I'd suspect. Maybe it's a generational thing? Maybe it's a West Virginia thing? Maybe it's some "pseudo-south" mentality. But his "thank you" was the first one -- in a long time -- that really struck me. I remember it. It sort of gave me a chill. It was...sincere.
I'm not saying that from now on, I'm going to preface my "thank you" with some creepy disclaimer:
"No, really. THANK YOU! Wow. Seriously. That was so selfless of you!"
But I think I will try to put a little more heart and feeling into it. That man's "thank you" really made my day. It made me smile, and chuckle a little bit when I think about it now. Not because it was comical, but because of my reaction to it.
It was like he had given me a gift (which, if you want to wax philosophical, in some way he did) that I was not expecting; it caught me off guard.
Life's lemons... or Momma's Boy...
Then, at my desk tonight, while I was browsing the Internet (it was a slow night) my mind started to wander as that particular experience as the jumping off point.
Sidenote: ||My mind is always doing offshoots of stuff like this. I'll start on one thing, something mundane like "thank you" and end up thinking about a topic like N. Korea or apples by proxy. It's bizarre. I've been inside my head for almost 23 years and I still don't understand it, so don't you bother trying to understand it, either.||
But anyway, I got to thinking at my desk about conditioning and "expected" behavior.
Do we only say these things to elicit a response of good tidings? Do we do it because we're all whores for the words "thank you" "please" or "you're welcome?"
Is this all just a huge game of politeness "tit for tat?"
And then I got to further thinking.
Are we sugar coating things too much for our youth? Do we only emphasize the positive life lessons? Do these things become reactionary to us because we're not even thinking about them?
Should we start preparing our youth for the inevitable shitty situations in life like breakups, unemployment, terminal illness, loss of a loved one, etc.? That way, when something awful happens, we can sort through it easier.
Should we feel fortunate if our childhood experience involved some sort of introduction into "life's lemons 101."
I'll never forget a conversation I had with my mother when I was 14 years old and had just come out to her as homosexual.
They are quite possibly the wisest words I've ever heard her speak, but they were so simple. And if you know my mother, you know she's certainly not Socrates or Plato. But every time I go through something shitty involving a guy, I go right back to that place in my mind where we were sitting on her bed, having coffee. She took my hand, and held it for a second before getting this really serious look on her face and said:
"David, I'm telling you this because I love you. Get ready for a lot of heartbreak. Men are whores -- and gay men are the worst!"
Her demeanor at the time was absolutely priceless. Looking back now, I kind of sigh and chuckle at how she said it. The way she leaned in and was holding my hand, I thought she was going to tell me she was special ops for the CIA or something, about to unravel an entire life of lies. That, or I was adopted.
At the time, I didn't quite know what to make of the words. I wasn't sexually active yet, or even interested in any particular guy. I don't think I had even had a crush on anybody yet. I was still bright-eyed and hopeful. Certainly not the jaded prick I am today.
But today, those words are so comforting to replay in my head...and I know why she said them.
It was preemptive shielding and mothering.
Her advice hasn't made me immune to sullen times in the dating world, though, nor has it made me bitter. But the frankness and honesty of her words have stuck with me.
The larger message I get when I decode those words is: "Sometimes, life just sucks. But be strong, you know I love you. You'll pull through."
It also reemphasized something she had told me from a young age about how I could approach her and tell her about anything. No unfair judgments, no expectations, just talk.
In a way, I think my mother has really helped prepare me for life's larger problems. I think more parents should make an effort to talk to their children, and vice versa.
I've met so many people in the gay community that are in their 30s and 40s who are still not out to their parents. The whole idea of living a closeted life just seems so foreign to me, probably because I never really lived that "closet" lifestyle. For that, I know I'm extremely fortunate.
I thought a lot about my mom tonight, and I'm going to write her an e-mail in a minute just to say "Hi. Thought about you today. Love you."
If you're reading this and lucky enough to have her available, take two minutes out of your day, call your mother and tell her you love her. Thank her for teaching you the fundamentals of being a good person.
...that is, if she didn't raise you to be an asshole.
And just for shits and giggles, here's a photo of my mom and I, circa 2oo1. We participated in a little documentary called, "Jim in Bold." This is a promotional image from that project.
If you haven't seen it yet, check it out.