I was standing on the subway platform in Atlantic Terminal on a cold evening, about 8 o'clock or so, in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. A mother dragged her crying 3-year-old son down the stairs to a bench and ordered him to sit. He climbed onto the bench and she stood in front of him as he cried and called out to her, reaching for her. She smacked his hand away and said, "If you touch me again, I'll break your arm."
I stood there staring at her, wondering what to do. If I said something, would it make it worse for the little boy at home. I was aware that if this were my mother and I was that child, that any stranger making critical comments about her mothering ability would enhance her shame and later, I would have to deal with that. This young mother needed help, that was clear. And also clear was that this was her relationship with her son. I don't mean the relationship was none of my business. I mean that she had already established authority with this little boy - most likely through violence or the threat of violence - because he wasn't moving off that bench.
She saw me watching her. I'm quite sure my confusion and disapproval were registered on my face, but that didn't change anything. Wherever, however, she lived, this behavior was acceptable. And I understood that, because my mother used to speak to me that way. She didn't threaten to break my arm. She threatened to brain me and when I asked at four years old what that meant, she told me "I'll take a brick and bash your brains out."
We lived in a neighborhood where one mother wore a leather belt strung around her neck so it was at hand to beat her kids. Our next door neighbor used to lock her daughter in a closet. I know that because one day I was playing in their house and I got locked in the closet with her. I wasn't frightened really, because Maggie told me her mother always let her out.
These are the parents who only feel powerful when they are angry. They live on the edge of breaking down and back away from the edge by lashing out. Their words are worse than their physical actions and far more permanent. They can put a fine face on to the public - so friendly, so charming - but their damage at home is continuous and unseen especially when someone has stirred up their deeper shame.
There's a way of living that isn't in the Christmas commercials for Sears or Target or Wal-Mart where everyone is so jolly and families are so supportive. There's a way of living that is filled with stress and overwhelm. There are people who see the ads on TV and billboards - happy families, buying power, holiday cheer - and they wonder where it is. Anger, frustration, sorrow, those are their ghosts of Christmas past-present-future.
So, I tread carefully that night.
But, when I see a homeless person, I can think for a moment what they might have experienced. Think of the sense of worthlessness they may have lived with that's brought them to beg at the freeway off-ramp right next to my car window. I can hand a disposable poncho to a man in the rain, a few dollars to an old toothless woman (who blessed me and when I blessed her back, thanked me for it). I can give the last few dollars in my wallet to someone struggling to eat.
I encourage you to think about giving a smile, encouragement, tutoring, mentoring, coaching. Think of the children, the elderly, the vulnerable who have need of a kind word if not a dollar or two.
Don't be lazy. Don't be afraid. You have something to give away. Forget about the tax write-off and hand a bag of clothing to someone at the corner begging. For a day, stop posting your provocative messages and angry opinions on social media and turn to do something good, something kind and peaceful, something that could have far-reaching consequences that you may never know about.
Think of that little boy on the train platform in Brooklyn. He's in all of us to one degree or another.