I committed my first cruelty at the innocent age of 4. And I knew it.
We were a team almost from the get go, Amy and me. In the 4-kid ABBA rhyme scheme that was our family pattern, we were the tight middle core — two girls just a year apart at the center, while there was a boy-girl two-year gap at the top and a girl-boy 3-year gap at the bottom. And so it was an oddity that I happened to be outside without Amy and even more curious that I, the younger one at age 4, was already installed on Gayle’s porch next door, a neighbor kid I have no recollection of ever playing with on any other occasion. She was a good few years older.
But on this day, there I was next door by the time Amy finished up whatever she was doing inside and popped on out to play. It didn’t take her long to locate me. Seeing us on the porch, she looked our way long and hard, instantly sizing up the situation: she was the outsider; I was on the inside. The recognition of this was all over her face, along with a longing to belong.
The vulnerability of her underdog position was instantly visible to Gayle and me. We arrived automatically and wordlessly at a scheme to employ our power.
“Amy, come over and play with us,” we called out.
Happiness and relief lit up her face as she trotted on over. Oh, the deliciousness of how she played right into our plan. As she mounted the stairs so eagerly, we craftily reversed our position.
“What are you doing here?” we demanded. “No one invited you.”
Dumbstruck, Amy slunk away. Waiting until she was just back over the property line, we expertly deployed phase two.
“We were just kidding,” we shouted. “Amy, come back! We want to play with you!”
Amy trotted back over, though a bit apprehensively this time. And for good reason because we played it all over again. As soon as she hit the stairs we went for it.
“Who said you could come over? Go away.”
Even now it’s painful to conjure that look of comprehension in her eyes as she turned back, wise at five to the human capacity for cruelty, having learned her first lesson from me. Though Gayle and I tried for a third go round, Amy was now sufficiently schooled in the mysterious potential we have to mess with each other that for some reason lurks in the human heart.
Despite the betrayal, Amy and I picked our partnership back up, which has continued for a lifetime. I don’t think we’ll ever outgrow being “the girls” in our family. We shared everything from our green Schwinn 10-speed bike, a paper route, a bank account, every substantial job we ever held through high school and college, and even the same double bed — also through college and right up until Amy got married after graduating. What’s more, our team-ship extended beyond family, also sharing the same original group of friends from high school which carries on to this day.
In fact, just a few weeks ago, most of the gang got together at Amy’s house for one of our intermittent reunions. Being on my mind, I told this story of my original cruelty one morning when we were out on a walk, the four of us stretched side-by-side across a back road. Patty and Christine said things like “Wow,” and “Nice,” and “God, you were mean,” as I recapitulated the evil maneuver. When I got to the end, we shifted into discussing the possible ramifications of that early betrayal on Amy, what kind of influence this had on her relationship with the world, and whether it had anything to do with driving her high achievement which started, it seems, from the moment she stepped off Gayle’s property that last time. She’s an indisputable success, a true difference-maker in the world professionally and liver of a rich and full life of family and friends personally, despite an insane schedule and a mountain of responsibility — all the while still managing to bake bread and clean her closet.
But it wasn’t until that morning on our walk, after sitting on this for 52 years, that I finally put it to Amy flat out.
“Bottom line, what did my cruelty do to you?”
Amy was matter-of-fact.
“I’ve gotten over it.”
True enough, it clearly hasn’t held her back, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some deep hurt, the angle I am forever zeroing in on. How could there not be damage? What we do matters.
At some point in the middle of all this deep consideration of my awfulness, the group did note that despite the despicableness of the act, at least my crossover into cruelty had registered deeply within my four-year-old self. It’s true. In the instant my cruelty was born, so was my conscience.
Early that next morning Amy and Christine were already downstairs drinking coffee and talking, having circled back around to the come-over-and-play story. I slid in. While we were talking about the curious make-up of humanity in general and us individually and in specific, Christine recalled the first day she started hanging out with us. She already knew Patty because they worked on the yearbook together. They were out on assignment together that particular day, so when Patty came over to our house afterwards she brought Christine along. Christine felt edgy. Though she is an American citizen and has been in the states since she was two years old, she’s originally from Pakistan and was one of only about 3 or 4 darker skinned families in the very white, very small town of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa. Arriving at a someone’s door unannounced and uninvited just isn’t the kind of assumption you make, Christine said.
“Growing up wasn’t all that easy, but you girls acted like it was nothing when I showed up. You just said cool; come on in.”
I don’t remember that day, but after a lifetime of speculation over how easily and naturally cruelty seemed to flow out of me at such a young age, I felt an instant sort of release hearing this story about how as a teenager I welcomed Christine in without a thought. Bringing the flip side of my story forward turned something for me whether Christine knew it or not, just as Abraham Verghese points out in Cutting for Stone. The world turns on our actions and omissions, both good and bad.
Good or bad, why and how either come out of us is the question. Especially the bad. What’s the point of starting in on the cruel side of the equation so early and for no reason? I know I’m not special in that crossover; unprovoked cruelty is far from unusual. And while it’s understandable how accumulating a few hits from life flips the switch on our animal defensiveness and comes out in our need to be better than others and drives us to assert our value and power and take people down a notch or two or all the way, I don’t imagine I had much in the way of accumulation at four years of age so why start then with my sister?
While it’s easy to see some evolutionary value in our capacity for cruelty, it feels like there’s something else going on. It feels like this capacity is also rigged as a spiritual test, providing all the material we need to define ourselves, as survival and spirit duke it out within. How at odds are they? Do they have to be? Wrestling with that one is probably enough to occupy every last day of our lives, as we make of ourselves out of that spiritual material what we will.
One day twenty years ago I stood outside my house and had a little conversation with the universe. I was immersed in a familiar struggle, a struggle that always involved trying to get myself to shape up, be different than who I was, someone less emotionally problematic to manage. I was fed up.
“Are you flipping kidding me?” I said out loud. “This is what I get to work with?”
An answer actually came back. “Yes. This is who you get.”
I stood still. Did I say that? Or think it really loudly? Or did it come from someplace else? I couldn’t tell, but what really got me was the instruction quality to the statement, like I was a standard, rank & file angel here to carry out my earthly assignment and being told to suck it up and get with the program.
Aside from the mild scolding, there was also something oddly affirming for me about this answer in an all-part-of-the-plan sort of way. Yes, this is who I am supposed to be. In fact, I am the spiritual material. Rather, we are the spiritual material…our cruelties, our kindnesses, our emotional luggage, our struggle to figure it out and bring ourselves along, our struggle to find our center. Our struggle to say,
Welcome to my heart.
The stories in this blog are excerpts from my memoir, The Organization Project. While they are true to me and reflect how I see, I acknowledge there are multiple truths, including my own which change over time, even as the events themselves remain the same, whatever they were. What I make of an event 5 years out may not be what I make of it 10 years out or 50 years out.