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26 May 2003 (Monday): sacrifice

Overheard in an adjacent bedroom:

- There has been so much sadness in my life. So much hardship. So much anger.
- You've survived it.
- Oh yes, I've survived it, sure. But it's too late to be happy now. I'm eighty-one.
- There's always time to start being happy.
- No. I saw a movie recently, about a woman who couldn't laugh. Couldn't smile. That's me. I see happy things, I can't smile.
- You have to try, Ma.
- Too late. He took all that away from me. Self-centered bastard. Never a thought for what I might be going through.
- That's in the past. Bury it. You're free now.
- Free, ha! I'm so tired. My head hurts all the time.
- You're free of him here, now start acting like it. If you choose to suffer from the memories, he still controls you. You're still letting him control you.
- What else can I do? My head hurts all the time. The pills don't work. I couldn't sleep last night, now I'm going to be tired all day.
- You can do plenty. You're taking English classes.
- Huh.
- And doing quite well if I recall. Top of your class, a regular teacher's aide.
- It's always too long. Two hours, I can't even get up to get a drink of water.
- You're learning something new. The world is opening up to you.
- My head hurts all the time. That self-centered bastard. He never did a thing for me. Never a thing.

posted by enjelani @ 12:55 AM PST

Replies: 20 comments


It's the difference, I've observed, between those who lead genuinely engaging, productive lives versus those who feel constantly victimized by it.

There are those who'd persist in sulking, sulking over whatever transgressions they feel others have made against them

"It's not my fault" is their refrain; "somebody owes me, and I will pout until they pay up in full!" And so they sit, waiting for the windfall they think their woundedness entitles them to. And waiting. And waiting.

That woman IS free - HAS been free for a good long time - but chose to imprison herself in her bitterness and grief. And there are no bars so strong as the ones we build for ourselves, neh?

The biggest dysfunction in contemporary American culture (in my opinion) is its conspicuously absent sense of gratitude. Most Americans have no idea just how ridiculously lucky we are; whatever our individual frustrations and disappointments may be - 99% of the people on this planet would gladly trade their problems with yours if they had that chance.

Eighty-one years old, a citizen in the richest, most free society in human history, and still sulking like a surley teenager. Still refusing to take responsibility for her own happiness.

What a tragedy.

posted by pjammer @ 26 05 2003 06:53 AM PST

i heard it as a tragedy too, but in a different way...i wonder what "he" had done, that she was now so imprisoned by the memories. she's probably partially responsible for her own misery, yes. but then, i can't begin to imagine what it takes to break free of the past. i'm only twenty-four, and already i have my relentless demons. what kind of weaponry does it take to ward them off at eighty-one?

posted by enjelani @ 26 05 2003 11:52 AM PST

Gratitude is not a passive state. As an active state of mind, it burns demons and paints the world anew. Bravo pjammer!.

posted by theo @ 26 05 2003 12:39 PM PST

I don't know... in a sense she's a hero in the way I'm reading it. I get the feeling this woman gave her life, sacrificed it, for others, her family in particular. She probably never complained about a thing, and now that she suddenly has freedom she doesn't know what the hell to do or how to feel. Remember the old man from Shawshank Redemption? After so many years in prison, the only thing he could do with freedom was to kill himself.

It's easy for us to judge such people as ungracious. But there are people who have made incredible sacrifices in their lives that this generation can't possibly imagine so that their children can live cushy lives and have the freedom to do things (like blog). I'm assuming this woman has never tasted any sense of life and you can't make assumptions from a perspective of true personal freedom and priviledge that she is obligated to suddenly be grateful for the gifts of a free society. I can't imagine her difficulty, but from her comments, I'm quite certain her predicament is more complex than what's been suggested.

If anything, maybe some people should have more accountability to thank tragic heroes like this poor woman for giving us what we take for granted.

posted by jim @ 26 05 2003 01:02 PM PST

pain will fill up whatever space it can if we let it. what was that saying? the cost of freedom is eternal vigilance? if you cease the act of gratitude (to agree with Theo on the nature of gratitude) or whatever other weapons you have, your demons move in and set up shop. and yeah, i don't doubt that some people are forever ruled by them and can't find the personal power to claim the freedom that's their birthright. (i'm picturing castles and Monty Python: "now go away or I weel taunt you a second time-uh!")

so in my typically non-useful way i agree with both pjammer and Enjelani. and Theo and Jim. but to be a hard-nose on accountability ... if the woman chose her path, she should accept where she is. if she didn't choose her path, she chose not to choose, so she should similarly accept the consequences. but of course i'm a softie and don't really think anyone deserves pain.

posted by eric @ 26 05 2003 03:09 PM PST

Whining about your life and wallowing about the sins of others does not a hero make. Assigning nobility to those who loudly proclaim their suffering is, in my view, a terrible mistake.

It could very well be that she 'sacrificed her life for others' - but from the just the text that Enj quoted, I just don't see where you deduced that. How can you so confidently assume these heroic qualities about her with just the data points provided?

Let me tell you a story about someone I consider a hero. At the age of 21, my mother graduated first in her class at National Taiwan University. Those of you who are familiar with the Taiwanese education system recognize it as the #1 school in the country. Her considerable academic brilliance had not gone unnoticed, and she won a cash scholarship to go to the US to go to medical school. My grandmother (her mother) nixed the idea - telling her that it was 'inappropriate' for women to become doctors - that it was better for her to go to nursing school in Taiwan instead. The scholarship money my mother earned, like most money in Chinese households, was considered 'family money' and my grandmother comadeered the funds to make real-estate investments in Taipei (I'll give you two guesses as to whether my mother was given any ownership stake in those investments). And so, an entire medical career was derailed thanks to a combination of misogyny and greed.

My mother should have every right to hold a bitter grudge against my wai po. Hell, I know I would. But, mirable dictu, she does not. It took me *years* to get this story out of mom, and even when she tells it, she just shrugs, offers a ruleful smile and tells me "well, that's just how things were back then."

Grace and class, all the way.

And there it was. Instead of a MD mother who could afford to send me to the private colleges I gained admissions to, I, too, bore the burden of my grandmother's rapaciousness and sexism, having to wait tables during my years at a public university.

My mother is a quiet, honorable person and while I have quite obviously not inherited any of the former characteristic, I hope I can do her sacrifices justice by living up to her example in the latter.

Real heroes make their sacrifices without fanfare and never nag at you to make sure you know just how much they had to suffer on your behalf. Real heroes quietly make the best of brutally unfair situations and hold their heads high in the face of adversity.

Me? I AM grateful to genuine heroes who've sacrificed for this nation, and have happily expressed that gratitude in financial support of the American Legion.

Beyond that - I am uncertain what thanks I owe to 81-year-old strangers who sulk about their past in public.

posted by pjammer @ 26 05 2003 03:51 PM PST

Pjammer wrote: "I am uncertain what thanks I owe to 81-year-old strangers who sulk about their past in public."

"Adjacent bedroom" does not equal "in public."

posted by anonymous @ 26 05 2003 06:01 PM PST

Ah, the perils of publicly stating an opinion. :)

If I'm making assumptions, fair enough, but I'm sure you'd agree, I'm not the only one. In other words, without knowing the subject of enji's post, you might want to consider erring on the side of showing a bit of respect on her blog.

posted by jim @ 26 05 2003 06:45 PM PST

hmm...i think some clarification is necessary here. :) jim and i have been corresponding privately on the subject of this woman's life - i know her personally, as well as the other speaker in the dialogue - and so he does have more data points to work with than other readers of this post.

for my part, i don't consider her a hero. i consider her a victim. she gave everything she had to a life built on certain expectations, made sacrifices for what she believed was right, and none of it came to pass. whether or not she "should" or "has a right to" be bitter, she is. maybe it was a mistake to put her up for scrutiny here.

posted by enjelani @ 26 05 2003 07:04 PM PST

Yes, but the difference between the perception of sharing a story and putting her up for scrutiny lies within the each commentor him/herself.

posted by echeng @ 26 05 2003 07:48 PM PST

I'll not weigh in on my opinion of the topic itself, other than to say I am happy you made the post about it enji.

I think mainly because things are rarely black & white. Victim vs. Hero. It's interesting to read many people read the same exact literal text and come away with so many different interpreted meanings.

Everyone brings a completely different set of goggles of which to view the planet, and everything in it (blogs are no exception). Often times you can learn just as much about yourself by sitting back and listening to how others view the topic at hand.

Anyway, it's not for me to say whether or not it was a mistake to post her plight up on here, but i'm glad you posted it up. Food for thought and possibly for change...

posted by syndromes @ 26 05 2003 08:47 PM PST

Demons are not easily banished. It seems to me that if you're waiting around for life to be nice to you, then you're wasting your time... of course you have to go out and do something.

But demons stab you in the back, where you can't retaliate, where you can't parry or void. That's what they're good at - they're your demons after all, so they know your soft spots like no one else in existence. I don't know that there are that many weapons out there that are good for nailing such persistent harriers. Not to sound like an overly dependent person or anything, but I think that's why so many people need someone else around... mutuality. Another person there, to watch your back for you. To keep an eye out for the things you can't see, to tend the wounds you can't reach, to strike at the demons as they draw near, or tell you when you're about to be blindsided.

When that person betrays you, it's the most horrible kind of wound, because it was that person that you trusted, that person who let you down.

It seems to me that many heroes carry around wounds... they strive with grim and bitter determination against those obstacles and adversaries that they can, to get their minds off the repeated stabbings in their backs that they can do nothing to avoid, nothing to prevent. I'm neither old nor wise enough to speak definitely on things like this... but it seems to me that often the main difference between the most stalwart hero and the most despicable villain is not whether one is necessarily born virtuous and the other a vile wretch, but whether one contends with his or her wounds and victimization with dignity, nobility, or determination, or responds with selfish vengeance or sadistic bitterness.

Sure, there are some heroes out there who were born with the wherewithal to be heroes out of dumb luck or sheer strength of character, but they seem to be more the exception than the rule. I have heard of more heroes who were not born to be doers of deeds, but who rose to the occasion when it reared its scaled head and spat mockingly on their souls.

Even Mother Teresa had an exorcism or two performed on herself over the course of her lifetime.

I think more heroes have been victims than not...

posted by m. mellow @ 26 05 2003 09:47 PM PST

Demon-Slaying 101

Good topic Enj - I've enjoyed reading others' perspectives here. On the topic of resilience versus nursing one's wounds, I HIGHLY recommend Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankel.

A bit of background: Frankel had a successful psychiatry practice in Vienna, Austria in the late 1930s when he was rounded up with other Jews to the Nazi concentration camps. The horrors he experienced there are nearly unfit to print - and Frankel lived through it all. In the book, Frankel offered his observations - on the personalities of those survived, versus those who gave up and let themselves go.

In the book, Frankel goes on to articulate what he called 'the last human freedom' - the idea that whatever other freedoms others may deny you through force, you have the freedom to choose your response to it.

It's a freedom many people dismiss with cavalier ease - and I think they do so to their great loss (as this 81-year-old woman's story demonstrates)

Taking it to a practical level - one of the most effective mental tricks I employ in combatting my own demons and depression is treating my life as if it were a simulation game; Every morning, I imagine that I am assigned this character (me), who has [X] in the bank account, a job at [Y], and [Z] people as friends, enemies and acquaintences.

Now go forth and explore in this world.

Should you walk up and talk to that cute girl who's been looking at you in the coffee shop? Perhaps spend an evening with that old friend who called you in the afternoon? Oooh, that ice cream looks mighty tasty - should you splurge and go for a scoop? Ok, fine - now how about we take a nice hour-long run to burn it all off?

Taking this perspective is liberating - since it divorces my decision-making process from whatever residual grudges, baggage or emotional barnacles may be attached to specific people and situations, it focuses my attention on *what is good* for my 'character,' and thus, ultimately, what is good for ME and those I choose to ally with.

I've trained myself to disallow bitterness and brooding emotions much purchase in my mind; while I may feel sadness or grief from some immediate disappointment, the simple trick of taking a step back and viewing my life as if I were freshly assigned this 'character' in a game, I can't help but feel wildly lucky for the [X], [Y], and [Z] I was given.

I consider every day to be Thanksgiving Day. It's the best weapon I know to slay the demons that haunt us from our individual pasts - and it's a perspective you might find helpful.

I hope so. :)


posted by pjammer @ 27 05 2003 03:20 PM PST

There is a formula attributed, I believe, to Hemingway: The right thing is what makes you feel good after you've done it. I use it as a test. Heroic sacrifices, and heroic acts, are those you will be proud of at age 81 -- not those you will, like that woman, regret.

One other note. I think it takes the same quality to slay demons and be in charge of your life at 81 as it does at 24: personal strength. I respect people who possess it, and openly admire those who possess more of it than I do. But what of the many others who possess less? Are we to smirk down on them from our high ground? Or are we to pretend that their limitations do not matter / do not exist / are not their fault? I think Pjammer occasionally errs on the former side, Jim on the latter. Me, I simply stay away from anyone I cannot respect, and so dodge the question. But if pressed, I'd say that Jim's error is more dangerous than Pjammer's. Romanticizing other people's weakness can lead you to forgive and encourage your own.

posted by beefeater @ 28 05 2003 03:11 PM PST

Hmm, I'm reading back trying to see where I said that none of this was her own fault...

I strongly believe that feelings of victimization are a dangerous thing and I think there's far too much of it in this world. I also believe that taking responsibility for one's life is of paramount importance. To suggest that I romanticize people's weaknesses couldn't be further from the truth. So this is beefeater's error.

I never said any of her struggles were not her fault. I suggested that for people here to presume that they exist in such an enlightend state of being that they can understand the plight of this woman is unfair. I do not have the perspective of an 81 year old woman who has lived her entire life solely for other people, so I don't know how she's supposed to behave. To presume that you do is like telling a clinically schizophrenic or depressed person to just *snap out of it*.

What I'm saying is that I agree with beefeater on a philosophical basis. And it was well-said ('cept the accusation, of course). What I don't like is when someone takes his own particular, individual view of the world as proof that all others are duty-bound to look a little harder to see things the same way.

If there's any romanticizing going on here, it's this very subtle patriarchal undercurrent that she should just be a good woman and bear all the pain she's endured with a rosy smile. I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt that a life of sacrifices enables her to grumble from behind closed doors if she wishes to.

posted by jim @ 28 05 2003 05:10 PM PST

I might suggest that forgiveness of flaws in yourself or others does not mean you deny that they're flaws and that they shouldn't be worked on. It's sort of a matter of disassociating one's *self* from one's *habits*. I believe that the two are separate. Habits can change. Honoring the one who can change them may very possibly help the process along.

I might suggest that ... but then I'd sound like a squishy self-help guru and feel the need to make a self-effacing joke about it. So hey man, you're *okay*!

posted by zach @ 28 05 2003 05:21 PM PST

i have to say i err on the side of the daughter (assuming daughter since she called 81 year old woman "ma") in this one. from what i read, the older woman has issues, that after apparently many years she doesnt feel she can shake. as enjelani pointed out, we're young, we dont know what its like to hold on to something that long, its hard to loose even those young demons of ours.

but in the end, i do feel that its up to each individual to deal with their own crap. to be responsible for their own happiness. if you arent happy, you CAN change that. not saying its easy, but possible. she is responsible for her happiness now that she is "free" just as she was responsible for her happiness when she wasnt. hate to over simplify things, but if you are in a bad situation, its up to you to get out. to some extent it really is black and white. again, not necessarily easy, but possible. and thats what matters. possible.

so ill take that middle ground and just say STOP EAVESDROPPING YOU PUNKS! ;)


posted by mark s @ 29 05 2003 11:18 AM PST

*poo* *chee* *poo* *chee* *poo*

this lady's coming back
to her self-oriented track
after years of dishin'
nuthing but altruism

she might yet
she might nyet
return to that life
of a child and no strife

but it ain't gonna happen like snap
wish it could be but it's never like that
'lil daughter, she's doing the right thang
encouraging her ma to try some new things

y'all got to open your eyes
and ask yourself why
why do I criticize
when I should edify

this lady's a hero
she ain't some zero!

*poo* *chee* *poo* *chee* *poo*

posted by Macadamer @ 29 05 2003 02:01 PM PST

Macadamer, I'm tellin' ya... the poo-chee-poo thing, it just, well...

here, try this:

oom chee oom-PAH chee
oom. oom. PAH chee


posted by jim @ 29 05 2003 02:56 PM PST

mmmmmm ... kim chee ...

posted by mark s @ 29 05 2003 11:00 PM PST