I was a really nice person as a teenager – I fought for justice even then, believing in the inherent goodness of people. My dream was to live in a commune, of all things, at The Farm in Tennessee. I would learn midwifery and deliver perfect children into the waiting arms of their non-conforming but oh-so-spiritually superior parents, and top off the day with a cup of chamomile tea, shared with my housemates.
As I got older and had kids and mishaps of my own, I clung to my ideals. I remember telling my mother sternly not to call my youngest son a “bad boy”, but to clarify that he did a “bad thing”. She rolled her eyes at me, and I remember thinking how unenlightened she was. I should have been grateful she didn’t smother me and my cheeky self with a pillow.
Look, I wasn’t a saint. But I wholeheartedly believed in giving people a break, and that they were traveling a road as bumpy as my own, which would account for anything in their behavior that I would otherwise call – well – shitty. Even my infamous brother-in-law, who robbed me blind and caused the breakup of my marriage; he couldn’t really help it, you see, because of the way he had been raised.
Current Me reads the above sentence and wants to smother me with a pillow myself. The truth is that I have become a bit of a jerk in my late fifties. I no longer believe that all people are inherently imbued with love, peace, and chicken grease. These days I recognize that some real Cornholio’s tread the earth among us, and I keep myself puckered accordingly.
It’s not that I’m proud of that. In fact, I catch myself thinking something of epic-level snarkiness, and it’s like I have Charlie, the angel from “It’s a Wonderful Life”, perched on my shoulder in miniature and heaving a sad sigh. “Melissa,” he says, “that wasn’t really nice of you, was it?” Sometimes, Charlie and I are both shocked at the same time at the levels of curmudgeon I can display.
Is it age? I’ve read that, post menopause, my levels of progesterone have tanked – that feel-good hormone that tends to balance mood and sleep. Maybe I need a little hormonal spliff to restore my sunny disposition. Is it being married for twelve years to a retired police officer? The man has seen people at their worst, and likes to grumble, “In God we trust – all others we run through the national criminal database.”
I wouldn’t care much, but it’s a bit embarrassing to be so grumpy when my profession requires me to be the embodiment of serenity and grace. I am a nurse practitioner. My job is to help people at vulnerable times in their lives, and sometimes vulnerable people can behave like real jackwagons. Pain and nausea do not always bring out the nobility in people, I’ve found.
I have flaws as well, I find, and with no small surprise. My eyes take an automatic roll backward in my head when someone has had cold symptoms for two hours and comes to the clinic to be cured. I struggle mightily to keep a straight face when a child is presented to be evaluated for mosquito bites – not infected bites, not bites covering their entire body – just three or four good summer welts on an arm or a leg that are itching.
My favorite priest told me once, “It’s not a sin to think of it, Melissa. It’s only a sin if you act on it.” While I appreciate that he was trying to give me a little heavenly leeway, I didn’t attend eight years of parochial school for nothing. I know that the witty but cutting thoughts I have make me a brute. I meditate; I journal; I try my hardest to develop superhuman patience and compassion that covers all stupidity – er, sins. And yet it lurks, my secret, grouchy shame. I’m not just a schmuck. I’m a super secret ninja a$$hole. I guess, at least, I’ve got stealth, right?