Near the end of Flannery O’Connor’s classic short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” an old woman gets drawn into bargaining for her life with a killer. The Misfit, as he’s known, is escaped from prison and rampaging, wounded, through the world. In his own mind, he’s been wounded by God: he can’t be sure the promises of salvation he’s heard so much about are real. “If I had of been there,” he rages, “I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now.” Looking at the killing spree that’s brought him across the state and up and down so many roads, he can only snarl, “No pleasure but meanness.”
Unfortunately, the Misfit’s words don’t ever seem to stop being relevant. Just in the past couple weeks, for instance, we’ve seen a Presidential candidate announce — with no apparent fear of backlash from his base — that he’s “not concerned” about poor people, particularly the very poor. (To the inevitable excuse-making about “context,” a friend responded, “I struggle to think of a context in which the statement ‘I’m not concerned with the very poor’ is not reprehensible.”) We’ve seen a major breast-cancer organization bow to public outrage after it attempted to defund breast-health initiatives at Planned Parenthood clinics — belying its much-trumpeted concern for “women’s health” (particularly low-income women’s.) On its underside, that pink bow has some very messy seams. And in our community, we’re just coming off an energetic public lecture by Nicholas Kristof, whose book Half the Sky has galvanized our students to consider the interrelationship of poverty, patriarchy, and religious extremism, and how raising the status of women and girls might benefit everyone in a society. We saw pictures of a fourteen-year-old girl sold into a Third World brothel whose pimp gouged out her eye with a metal rod. We heard the stories of rural African girls raped by soldiers or suffering from painful, stigmatizing fistulas, preventable by a $400 surgery. And we linked this to the subtler destructions gender prejudice wreaks in the First World too; it’s not only “their” problem. Students were powerfully engaged with the question of what happens when people allow ideologies or cliches or prejudices to blind them to the fact that that “other” is also a human being; for one thing, cruelty to that “other” gets a whole lot easier.
There are lots of reasons for being mean, and lots of ways to define it. In earlier times, “meanness” also signaled smallness, pinchedness, stinginess, or skimpiness, not just spitefulness, cruelty, or evil. But the two types of definition are connected. Meanness comes in a million life- and generosity-denying forms, all characterized by some type of what Martin Luther used to call incurvatus, the in-curving or in-growing of the soul, spiteful and self-denying and miserable as a hair or toenail burrowing underneath the skin. At a retreat in January, I heard the Quaker activist and scholar Parker Palmer describe how “the politics of rage” may stem from pain, trauma, or broken-heartedness: “violence,” he said, “is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” It’s worth remembering that those who hurt — or who act out of meanness — have also been hurt. But that doesn’t change the fact that since everyone gets hurt, everyone has to be responsible for what we do with that hurt, and how we treat other people. We can grow up and out, or down and in. “Will we be,” Parker asked, “life-giving or death-dealing?”
In her great book A Southerly Course, Martha Foose describes a small but significant incident of meanness that struck her — and me — to the heart. In the tiny enclave of Baptist Town, Mississippi, a lush grove of Celeste figs was suddenly cut down and hauled off to the dump in the back of a pickup truck. “Piled three times higher than the cab and spilling over the sides and dragging on the street were branches and branches from felled fig trees laden with barely ripe fruit,” she writes. “When I questioned the man who seemed to be in charge of the fig tree massacre, he told me with a venomous voice and blank-eyed stare that he was ‘tired of trying to keep the blackbirds out.’ The sycophants by his side snarled and nodded.” I read these words and thought of the lush Brown Turkey fig trees against the side of every barn and wellhouse of my childhood — of my father’s joking about “the Biblical fruit,” of the way he prepared a creek bottom for selective timber-cutting by marking, by hand, each tree that would be cut and snaked out by a team of men with mules, of the nobility of his grief for a big tree that had reached the end of its life — and I wanted to cry. I thought of WS Merwin’s poem “Convenience,” and the way it simply and subtly indicts that illusion that leads us to sacrifice gardens, trees, species, forests without number: “we consider it our personal savior / all we have to pay for it is ourselves.”
These memories led me to order two fig trees of my own — Black Jack and Brown Turkey — to live in pots and come inside in the winter. They arrived as bare sticks with a few tiny green buds; I planted them and kept them moist all through the winter. Fig trees go dormant; you have to wait for spring. But I had my doubts. What if I was watering and tending something that was really dead, and would not come back?
And then this week, on my way out the door for the first classes of the semester, I looked over and saw them coming back to life. Or, more accurately, back into the life I could see. They had been serene and green and growing, inside their own skins, all the time.
And so I’m hoping, amid all the pressures and crazinesses and pressures toward illusions of “convenience” in my life, and amid all the forces of wanton and careless and deliberately mean destruction in our world that would hack back life to its roots, that I can keep myself rooted, just like this: clear-eyed and present and able to listen, to respond, to offer a word or action that’s right instead of just convenient. We can’t control everything in this world, but we can control this choice: to be life-giving, in whatever way we can.