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Am I a Bad Person?

Am I a bad person?

The moment the words were spoken, I felt my chest tighten. How many times have I asked myself this question? How many times has the answer remained suspended, entangled in the webs of self-doubt. Yet, only in this moment did the question itself feel so wrong … and the words so painfully sharp. Perhaps, because they did not originate in the dark recesses of my own imperfect mind.

These words were coming at me over the phone, straight from the mouth of my eldest daughter … my Moon. Not only, but they had been spoken in such a way as to sound more like an affirmation than a question open to any discussion.

“Don’t say I’m not … because you’re my mom. I know I am. I know I am a bad person.”

I didn’t think it possible, but the muscles in my chest squeezed tighter still.

Many are the things our children say that deeply affect us in one way or another. My personal theory is that the harsh things which come out of their mouths as teenagers are a part of Nature’s tactic to better prepare us for the day they leave the nest (along with that smell which so rudely replaces the sweet fresh baby scent at around the age of 9 or 10) . For every “I love you, Mamma” that inspires us to wrap them in our arms and to cuddle them forever, there’s a smart-ass teenage remark that makes ushering them out to independence just a little bit easier.

“Am I a bad person?”

These words hurt me in ways that no “I hate you!” ever has.

Not that hearing your child utter the words “I hate you” is ever a pleasant experience, but it is somehow different. Those words are generally thrown at us when we are doing something that we feel is in our child’s best interest. The fact that the child in question does not necessarily agree comes with the territory. We absorb those words and try not to take them personally because we have a greater goal in mind: raising them to be decent human beings. In any case, they are words spoken in anger and out of frustration … We have all been there. We understand the source.

In the very same way, I understood these new words and I suppose that was one of the reasons they felt so wrong. These words come from a place of deep self-doubt, and not the kind of doubt that makes us wonder if we said or did the right thing or not, but the kind that involves our very essence: who we are as a person. Not a good place to be … and certainly not a place we wish for our children to visit. It hurt my soul to think that my sweet Moon could think herself a bad person.

Each time I insisted that she wasn’t, she told me I was biased … until she finally calmed down just enough to let me inquire as to what, exactly, would make her think that she could possibly be a bad person.

“You can’t see it, because you’re my mom,” she sobbed, “but everyone else can and they all hate me.”

“Why don’t you tell me what happened?” I prodded.

She finally relented and started to tell me about the events that had led to the call.

I won’t go into detail here about her supposed transgressions. Suffice to say, she had made some bad decisions and misjudged a situation or two. But, her biggest error, in my opinion, had come from putting her trust in the wrong people. It was a mistake, I told her, that came from an honest place. Learning who to trust, who really has your best interests at heart, is a lesson that stretches out a lifetime. You just have to be careful, I explained. And making mistakes, does not make you a bad person. It makes you human.

A part of me ached for her. When I was growing up, I did not have the arms of social media throwing perfection in my face. I couldn’t switch on the computer and see all the reasons I was doing things wrong and therefore must be a toxic person. When I had disagreements with my friends, I could step completely away and think things over, figure out how to remedy without being bombarded by texts even in my most private retreat … and without having everyone and their cousin sucked into the conflict. As complicated as it seemed back then … it was simpler.

“I am a bad person.”

I thought about this for a moment. For most of my life, I did not believe that bad people even existed. I was great at justifying other people’s actions … at imagining all sorts of reasons why they might have done things and telling myself that, surely, they felt regret.

Now, I tend to think that I did this for my own psychological well-being: to keep the flame of hope alive. The Italians have a saying: la speranza è l’ultima a morire. Literally translated it is hope is the last thing to die. Where there is life there is hope. I suppose believing that goodness exists in every human being is it’s own form of hope. I do still believe that people can change … but I also now believe that there are bad people out there.

This may simply be a knee-jerk reaction because, as of late, I have been dealing with what my mind can only think to define as bad people. Why? This is what I needed to figure out on the fly. Then it hit me.

“Why are you crying?” I asked my Moon. “Why are you so upset?”

“I told you! I am a bad person and I upset my friends.”

“Right … but why are you so upset?”

“I feel horrible,” she sobbed. “I told them I was sorry, but I don’t think they’ll forgive me.”

“There you have it,” I said.

She sighed her mom-you-are-so-cluless sigh. “Have what?”

“You are not a bad person because you genuinely feel regret about the mistakes you made. You apologized. You want to make things right. If you were a bad person you wouldn’t care who you hurt. You wouldn’t feel bad about what you did and you definitely wouldn’t accept responsibility for your actions.”

There was silence on the other end of the line.

“See? You are just a human being who made a mistake and you feel bad about it. If your friends can’t see that, maybe they are not being good friends … or maybe they just need a moment.”

Sure enough, the very next day she called to let me know that things were going better with her friends … that maybe she’d jumped to conclusions about just how angry they had been. This did not surprise me one bit.

Each one of my children has always been their own worse critic … ok … and sometimes each others’. But, heck, what are siblings for?

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