Empathy and Compassion

My cousin group that’s exploring our forebears just discovered a shocking new piece of information. Our paternal grandmother is the mystery that has brought us all together, we people who were strangers until two years ago, and now we dig and scan and request and compare data with the delight of child detectives. I think of us as the Scooby Gang.

Most of the stories we’ve unearthed about this grandma have shown that she was cruel, abusive, downright evil to everyone who knew her, starting with but not limited to her children. As the Scooby Gang is comprised of people raised by people who were abused by this grandma, we have first-hand knowledge of the effects of her abuse. The cycle of abuse continues until someone decides to take a different path, and that only happened with our generation.

Hearing some of the stories, it’s been hard for me to find even a sliver of compassion for her, particularly knowing how she treated children. As I’ve studied her life, I’m starting to see a clearer picture of her twists and turns. Our new morsel of info tells us that this grandma went through something truly traumatic in her young adulthood, something most people could never even imagine.

Here she is as a small child not long before coming to the U.S. It’s one of only three photos I have seen of her.

Fitting this piece together with what we already knew about her has turned on a bright light, and reminded me of how much I don’t know about her. I’ve spent a lifetime convinced that she was “crazy” and horrible. I was so terrified of becoming like her that I took intentional steps to stave off the onset of what I was convinced was genetic insanity. She loomed like a nightmarish inevitability, an example of what NOT to be, fixed in family history as simply a “bad” person.

With this week’s revelation, I have a couple of thoughts that keep floating through my mind.

One is “judge not lest ye be judged,” which I prefer to think of as “Don’t you hate it when people judge you without knowing the facts? Don’t do that to other people!”

The other one is “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers that you do unto me.”

I’ve spent my whole life judging my grandmother, seeing her in a dark shadow of fear and avoidance. She was horrible and had been from the beginning, she was irredeemable, mentally ill and deserved zero compassion.

But she was, at one time in her life, the “least” among us. An undocumented immigrant who spoke no English, was orphaned as a teenager, no family of any kind to turn to, who had to make her way in this country without resources or an education or any way to get out of the hole she fell into through no fault of her own.

Yes, she made choices, but like all of us, those choices didn’t happen in a vacuum. They were informed by her situation at the time, by what paths were available to her, and by the damage she had already incurred emotionally and psychologically. It’s hard to know there’s a better option available to you if you’re sitting at the bottom of a pit.

It took me a long time to have empathy for my father, but the Scooby Gang has helped me to see the pieces of his life come together, and I have finally reached a place of understanding. He was a child who was twisted and tormented by someone who was supposed to be his sole comfort and stability.

And that person who failed to provide her children comfort and stability could not do so because SHE was tormented by what had happened to her. She was alone, completely cut off from any kind of support or help, and went through some hellish things.

Now, as I look at my life and the choices I’ve had to make, I see where I’ve had support along the way. I see how I was given a hand, a lifeline, a phone call or a letter, someone to distract me from my (very real) troubles or sit with me and listen. I see a life full of choices also not made in a vacuum, choices available because I wasn’t really alone.

My grandmother did what she could with what she had. It wasn’t much and she made mistakes. Some big ones. But knowing more of her story now, I can see her as a child and a young woman, a young mother struggling to survive, and an older desperate, lonely woman who feels abandoned by the people she pushed away with her cruelty.

And since I don’t want to be judged by people who don’t know the whole story, I will remind myself to withhold my impulse to judge her and instead hold her with empathy and compassion.

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