We grow as people; we age and our once youthful vigor and innocence changes over time. Wisdom is gained in this way; with enough pains and heartbreaks, we learn what to avoid and what to seek out. This is part of “growing up”, where we once spoke and acted like children eventually we start to take on the role of elders. If we learn from our mistakes, we eventually becomes sages in our own right as we impart to those behind us the pitfalls to sidestep and the perils to avert.
But there is another notion of our lives that never leaves us. This is something I’m beginning to realize more and more as I encounter and talk to endless people. Who we have become is formed and informed by the children we once were and the pains we experienced in our formative years. At the core of everyone’s suffering is a pain that was made evident before we were even old enough to understand the world around us. Though all of our pains are different, at the core our tribulations can be traced to a love that once left. It is love that gave birth to us and the absence of it that re-birthed us into the ennui that confounds all of us.
Pain, you see, is a universal language. No matter our station in life—from prince to pauper and all in between—not one person in the history of humanity has been able to escape the gravity of distress. Some of us go through difficulties occasionally and for others agony is a constant company. Perhaps those who rarely feel sadness have just perfected the art of deflection and those who are bracketed by sorrow have just stared too long into the mirror of despair. Regardless, all of us irrespective of the endless labels we keep ascribing to ourselves in order to separate us from others, are all made equal by the slings and arrows of a pain that streams through our souls like a rolling mountain creek.
What I have understood through my own reflections and through the observations of endless people in my journeys is this. When we hurt in the present, it is never the present moments that we are reacting against. So when someone takes advantage of our kindness, it’s not the present malice that hurts as much as the fact that the present action reminds us of a time in the past where someone once took from us. The same can be said of endless times we are hurt by the actions of others. Our past haunts us and leads us to commit transgressions on ourselves even as we think it’s the world that is hurting us.
With the exception of child abuse or when someone physically violates us, most of the time when others hurt us, we are the ones who created that universe. For example, there was a time where I used to invite people to my house all the time back before my life took a turn for the sublime. I loved cooking for people and taking care of others was a source of my happiness. Thus, I had all kinds of people living with me as I opened up my home to strangers and would invite countless other “friends” into my abode to feed them. It never failed, I would spend hours cooking for people making a meal fit for royalty and at the end I would insist that others eat first and that I would eat later.
The invariable hyena would then eat of his/her share and then would go into the fridge to eat up the food I set aside to eat later on. This happened on multiple occasions and each time I would be livid, I could not understand how those who I fed would not only eat the food I gave them but would then bite my hand as they literally ate my portion. But I would keep excusing their behavior and would be quick to forgive and never learned the lesson of not letting myself be surrounded by those who make it their practice to take advantage of others. In time, my generosity would boomerang back on me in ways that I still have a hard time understanding. When my life crumbled and I hit skid row, the same people who I took care of for almost a year were nowhere to be found, a couple literally stole my saxophone and some additional possessions I once held near to my heart, and two of my “business partners” in short order defrauded me.
Thus began a two year exodus where a once mundane and privileged life turned into a life of hardship and indigence. Gone were the days of popping bottles at night clubs and selfies at expensive restaurants—all the sudden my reality became greyhound buses and missionaries. For the longest time, I was pissed off at the world and God. Why! This question bedeviled me over and over again as I questioned why God would let others do this to me and why my kindness was paid back with such malice and malevolence. For almost a year I wallowed in distress trying to figure out how this world can be so painful and induce pain unto those who like to give to others while rewarding those who willfully take from people.
But then I realized that it was me that created the maelstrom. I opened up the doors to let thieves into my home and I was the one who decided to open up a shisha lounge against my better judgement and in the process let two petty criminals become my business partners. I have no right to question God for it was my foolishness that made me give love to all the wrong people while overlooking the truly needy people who could have used my love to lift themselves out of the gutters of hopelessness and despair. We create the universe we create and most of the time we do so because wounds in the past predicate our actions in the present. This is why we keep finding ourselves in the same circumstances over and over again; the music first seems beautiful until all the sudden the record skips and we realize we are dancing right back in the blues that keeps following us.
A comedian once joked about David Banner and how each time he went to a different town he would get his ass beat. Get your ass beat once or twice, it’s an accident, but when David Banner gets his ass beat in every town only to let the Incredible Hulk loose—well then maybe the problem was David Banner himself. I laughed my ass off because something about this joke reminded me of me—we cry and laugh at the world after all when it reminds us of us. If we keep finding ourselves in the same situation, whether in the context of relationships, work, or friendships, and in the end we keep being serenaded by the same sad song, maybe it’s time for us to pause and ask if we are the ones who are seeking the mistreatment that gnaws at our hearts.
If you don’t know what the root problem is, you will never arrive at the solution. It took 42 years for me to understand my root problem; when I give too much and my kindness ends up being used against me, it’s because I give with expectation. I’m not talking about expecting like a tit for tat, you do for me as I do for you expectation. What I expect is at the very least not to be hurt by the people I give to. But I found myself continually in the precise predicament I tried to avoid! Just like David Banner I would end up getting mugged by either the indifference or malice of those who I gave to only to end up with a Hulk size chip on my shoulders shrouded by bitterness and regret. It was this endless loop of giving and receiving grief that led to me sulking on countless occasions into the pits of despair and desolation.
After a thousands kicks of the mule, we are faced with the realization that there is no education to be gained by another kick. A time comes for all of us to look at ourselves instead of looking outward. The solution is inward for it is our inner child hurting that makes us seek out the tunes that we we do a sad waltz to. I realize it now, the reason why I keep giving to others only to end up being hurt. When I was a child the love my mom raised me with was suddenly yanked away as my mother’s battle with depression led her down a harrowing road of self-abuse and inflicting harm on herself. The friendship I had with my mom was transfigured as I witnessed my mom receding into the hell of sadness and countless attempts to nullify her existence. I went from child to coach as I tried over years to “save” my mom through encouragement and laughter. But the more I tried, the more she sank into a hole she could not extricate herself from.
After witnessing the trauma of seeing my mom’s nearly lifeless body on one too many occasions, my mind went into self-protection mode and I created a firewall between my mother and me. The deep friendship I once had with my mom was burned away with the flames of withering memories. Like Joseph Stalin, I started to paint over my mom’s existence and blurred her out of my life even as I was living with her. By the time I attended college, the deed was done as the memory of my mom became more surreal than real. I look back in sadness at times; it was easier dealing with my father’s death than it was dealing with my mom’s living. This was the pain that planted itself right into my soul; instead of dealing with the inexplicable, I decided to run away from it. But the firewall I built between my mother and I was more like a prison—the repercussions of tucked away consciousness would emerge at the most random moments. To this day, I have a hard time when I hear anyone thanking their mom because it reminds me of the throbbing void that resides in my heart.
It was this throbbing pain that made me want to save others throughout my life. Where I failed with my mom I thought I could prevent others from going down the same path. My first love became an exercise in co-dependency because I was not self-aware enough to understand that I was suffocating my ex with the pillow of my own fears. Able to give yet unable to receive it, my fear was rooted in thinking that the person I loved would abandon me the same way I felt abandoned when my mom succumbed to her struggles. Minor fights would lead to full blown anxiety as I feared love would once again hurt me. This fear of love’s vacancy became my crucible—I decided to keep giving in order to coax love to stay. But even the most loving person eventually realizes a love that they are getting out of fear apart from love that is authentic. She too beset by her own past struggles, two souls united by fear as much as we were made one by love eventually became two souls apart. Where fear exists love is nowhere to be found.
We have a tendency, it seems as humans, to focus on the love that left and idealize that while disregarding the love that is abundant around us. Children who grew up in homes that were broken by divorces often times put the parent that left on a pedestal while overlooking the love being provided by the parent who raises them. A love that is steady is steadily taken for granted only for that love to be the source of consternation once that love leaves. Proximity it seems breeds indifference; a rose near constantly around our nose bleeds into the periphery yet a tulip that is scarce induces envy and wantonness. This is how we end up with those who are not deserving of our love because we keep looking outward for love only to find ourselves enveloped by callousness. A delicate dance is danced where at times we take the lead being mendacious to others and at other times being the recipient of the mendacity of others. Through it all, we have the ability to rise above these hurts if only we look within and realize we are the source of our own circumstances.
The theme of my travails has always been a love that was made vacant. The reason I love my native land Ethiopia so much is because the land of my birth was yanked away. At the age of seven, a once serene existence in Addis Abeba was transformed into a life of struggle as my father worked himself into dust as an immigrant in a new land and my mother’s sadness was manifested when she left her connection to her mother back home. Pains interconnect us this way, the tears of our parents bath us in our own struggles as we learn to overcompensate for the past. Which leads to yet one more truism, those things we do to avoid being like others are the same crucibles we tried to avoid to begin with. Actions and reactions are one in the same and the only way we can overcome the pains of the past is when we stop either running from the past or letting the past imprison us.
It took endless dips into the troubled waters of indifference and, worse yet the enmity of those who thrive by taking from others, to finally wake up and realize that I am the problem all along. Instead of tending to the hurt child within me, I would find myself over and over again tending to the needs of others. Only to turn around and cry woe when those who I gave to would eventually malign me with their negligence. We truly create the universe that we reside in; we can speak happiness or sorrow in our lives with our words and we can create blessings or crucibles based on our perspective. We are not hapless victims who are feckless to do anything about our lives; we have the power to change our lives the minute we realize that the source of love and our power exists within us instead of seeking love and empowerment outside of us.
Serendipity! The ah-ha moment induced by the longest lonely walk and a Jobian two year struggle. But it is through this struggle I finally decided to embrace the hurt child within me instead of masking my pains through a combination of false arrogance and misdirected kindness. I am who I am; I can’t change the fact that I love to give to people and, to be honest, neither would I change it if given the option. I would change nothing at all, even though my tear ducts feel like they have been tapped dry and I at times still ask God why. In the end, this process of self-discovery would not have been possible without the journey I’ve traveled even though the path has been beset by one adversity after another. I will learn to be patient with myself and more discerning of who I let into my circle and in time I will fully forgive those who have hurt me in the past.
Likewise I hope that God forgives me for the copious times I have hurt others; it’s always easy to identify when others hurt us but not so much when we are the offenders. In the end though, I am thankful for all of it and it’s this one lesson that is turning the tears of my inner child into waters that nourish my soul. Our life is a duality; in order to find happiness, we must go through the times of melancholy. Hope springs from the same soils where hopelessness flourished. Knowledge after all is gained when we go through enough pains to realize what is helpful apart from those things which are full of harm. From broken to abundance, this theme of mine I am sure is universal.
Perhaps all the strife and hatred in the world can be lessened the minute we start healing the throbbing pains in our souls instead of thinking we can make a difference by searing “trolls” with rhetorical butane torches. People do what they do because they are hurting and we react back with anger because we too hurt. But hurting others by becoming hurtful too is not the answer, the only elixir that heals hate is the abiding love that we once felt before the world visited our spirit with hurt. This is a lesson I learned through my hardship and it is this lesson that has taught me to count hardship as blessings. I am blessed to have found my harvest at the most unlikeliest place. Here is to hoping you too find your harvest and that you too understand that a season of barrenness gives way to a season of abundance. Here is to blessings and to embracing the hurt and the tears of the child within all of us. #ChildWithinUS
The root of our power is the very source of our perceived weakness. Fear becomes strength the minute we uncover this axiom::
To my enat (mother) Sara., may one day our shattered existence be healed, may your sadness be transplanted with joys and memories be replaced by future blessings.
Originally from Ethiopia with roots to Atse Tewodros II, Lij Teodrose is a former community organizer whose writing was incorporated into Barack Obama's South Carolina primary victory speech in 2008. He pivoted away from politics and decided to stand for collective justice after experiencing the reality of the forgotten masses. His writing defies conventional wisdom and challenges readers to look outside the constraints of labels and ideologies that serve to splinter the people. Lij Teodrose uses his pen to give a voice to the voiceless and to speak truth to power.