Niggardliness of Spirit

It is understandable, if you grew up wanting, that as an adult your first impulse might be to hold on to the things you have, rather than to offer them freely.   This was certainly the case with my father.  My sister and I often noticed his difficulty giving.

Make no mistake, we had all the food, clothing, birthday gifts and other essentials that were needed, our hard-working father provided a materially comfortable middle class life.  It was his reflex to withhold, especially things that cost nothing and should have been easy enough to give, that we always noticed.   On some fundamental level, it pained him to be generous.

A cheapness of spirit, what the Brits might call a meanness of spirit, a stubborn, deeply held reluctance not to give the very thing that was needed most in that instance.  This held true for things that cost nothing but a moment’s consideration.  It was always hardest to understand his often-irresistible impulse to withhold those tiny, infinitely precious things.  Praise of any kind, for example, was very hard to come by.  

“Well, I never had praise in my life, never,” protested the skeleton.  

Hitler was mercilessly beaten by his unredeemed asshole of a Prussian autocrat father, big fucking deal.  It’s not hard to understand where the shit impulse comes from in those among us who cling to and justify our monstrousness.  It is quite a different thing to see it as a justification that means anything, except maybe to the justifier.  

“Well, that’s a little harsh,” said the skeleton.  

Well, my apologies to Hitler, then, dad, but you do get what I’m driving at, don’t you? . The horrific specifics of the humiliation a person has undergone may explain a lot about their later attitudes and behavior, but it doesn’t satisfy us as any kind of moral justification.  We can understand, and shake our heads, as we do with the poor beaten little boy who grew up to be fucking Hitler.  Of course, I’m not comparing you to Hitler in…  

“Of course not,” said the skeleton with a strong fruity over-note of slightly fermented sarcasm.

Once, you must remember this, we were walking down to the Dead Sea, I think it was, during your visit to me in Israel in my after high school year.  Mom and my sister must have gone on ahead, you had me hang back for a second at the rent-a-car.  You had something important to tell me.  You begged me, a skinny, angry teenager who regarded you with coldness at that time, not to become like you.  

“Let your mother, and other people who love you, show you affection.  Don’t push them away like I always do,” and you began to cry.  Tears as bitter as the corrosive, super-salty Dead Sea itself.  

I’d only seen you cry one other time, at a seder when speaking of those leaders who hated the Jews, and who rise up in every generation to kill us and try to destroy us, and how infamously they almost succeeded in recent times.  

As we walked the rocky, arid path downward I recall saying nothing, leaving my impassive mask on.  The mask of a kid who’d been brutalized by the man now crying at the impassive monster he’d had a significant hand in producing.

Fucked up, yes, but the point remains.  It is an exhausting struggle to overcome our pain to become fully human.  Much easier to blow up when some asshole steps up, how about I shut your fucking mouth for you, fuckface?   Easier, being eternally deprived of a kind word, to clam up when your child looks up expectantly: how did I do, dad?  I get these things and, hard ass that I am, give almost no allowance for the painful experiences that stunted your ability to refrain from doing to others what is hateful to you.  

People put in the hard work to overcome those things, learn to practice kindness, to apologize when they hurt somebody, to listen sometimes, even when they are not that interested, because they feel the other person’s need to speak and the pain behind that need.  

“Your father got much better toward the end of his life, as far as letting me show him affection,” my mother told me, not that long before the end of her’s, “he’d let me kiss him, if I held his head.”

It’s a good idea to hold the head of a dangerous creature and have a good grip before bending in close for the kiss.  

“We are all dangerous creatures, Elie, that’s what I was trying to tell you.  And if you have no teacher in the art of human decency then you somehow have to grow into your own teacher,” said the skeleton.

“To the extent that I see you doing that, I applaud you.  We’ve had our differences, and on some deep level I still don’t truly wish you well, but I have been impressed by some of the strides you’ve made.  May you live long enough to take the rest of the steps you need to take.  Don’t be like me, Elie.”


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