I believe that we can change the world by living our lives with courage, integrity, humor and compassion. I believe in hope.
Somewhere between the cracks of a schizophrenic mother and an alcoholic father, between poverty and despair, I clung to a children’s book that I found during one of my library escapes, The Door in the Wall. In that book, a young boy is taught by a monk that when faced with what seems an insurmountable obstacle, we must always look for the door in the wall—that narrow passageway that we carve out with hope. At least, that’s how my eight year old mind remembers it.
Somehow things actually got worse. My parents got crazier and more violent and poorer and angrier. For a long while, I survived the day and that was all I could do. But every once in a while someone would take notice, someone would go out of their way, and I was reminded of the kindness of the monk, and I hoped. Soon I could think about how I wanted to get through the day, and then it became possible to think about who I wanted to be at the end of the day.
A few days after my eighteenth birthday, I called “411” to get my father’s phone number. Rage was corroding me from the inside out and I knew that I had to face its source or be destroyed by it. After more than five years of not seeing or talking to him, we arranged to meet. He lived in a transient hotel; the floors covered with spilled food, old newspapers, and well fed cockroaches. It was hard to be mad at him. We met regularly for several months, during which I suggested that his room reflected the hopelessness he felt and that perhaps cleaning it might be a first step towards reclaiming a sense of peace. One day he called to say that he had started to do just that, and that he felt better already. And that he loved me. I can count on half a hand how many times I had heard that growing up. I told him I loved him too. The next morning I received a call telling me he had died of a heart attack in the early morning.
Eventually I came to the unlikely place of holding a Ph.D. in English, with a focus on the writer who knows madness and violence better than anyone, Shakespeare. That too proved another beginning. Some lives are graced with answers; mine is full with questions. I made a half-hearted effort in academia, and now I’m again remaking myself. We’ll see what happens. I don’t feel successful, generally, but I hold to the conviction that I have succeeded in making the world a little better by acting with courage, integrity, humor and compassion, through which, I may be able to pause long enough to recognize someone else’s pain and pass on to them the secret of how to find the door in the wall.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.