Late in life and through the most painful of experiences, I came vividly to understand that it was as important to change a belief as to hold blindly to an inherited one. Without much thought of its effect, my Swiss parents passed on a legacy of perfectionism, grandiosity, and a “We are better than our neighbors” worldview. Had any of us siblings expressed an interest in writing, painting or even politics, then we would have needed to be as talented as Matisse, as eloquent as Goethe or as brilliant as Churchill. But then, having misted our earliest air with those paralyzing expectations, my parents disappeared. My mother into another marriage, without us. My father into the comfort of an airplane seat, which became his real home.
You don’t end up in a psychiatric hospital in your mid forties and think of yourself as a success. After years of being cloaked in the lead cape of a relentless depression and after a serious attempt at suicide, I shuffled through the wooden door of that mental institution, certain only of my utter worthlessness. My body felt like a hollowed out pumpkin, months past Halloween; its once crisp features now ragged slits and its charred flesh shrunken inward. I resented the nurses’ and doctors’ attempts to get me to join patients’ groups or to take an interest in our various community meetings. You’ve got to contribute something if you’re serious about wanting to get well, they told me flat out. But those words only made me want to scream back at the doctors, “Don’t you see, no on e here needs the few crumbs I’d have to give anyway.” But after weeks of being questioned about my apparent aloofness, I gave in. And so in a voice that a bat would have struggled to hear, I said, “Well, maybe I could serve afternoon tea on Fridays.” As you might well imagine, tea time didn’t exactly seem to be a pressing need in our clinic. However, in the daily turbulence of my patient life, it was one of the very few things I took pleasure in and felt I might be able to do for others.
The kitchen staff was kind and generous when I went looking for bread, cucumbers, some eggs and slices of ham. Lovely old platters were found, and enough teacups for about fifteen of us. And one of the cooks, an older British woman, surprised me one morning with a lovely china teapot. Friday arrived and I was terrified. Anxious that no one would come into the living room at 4 o’clock. Or that if they did, they’d just laugh at the foolishness of a crisp tablecloth, my hand picked bouquet of flowers and the tiny sandwiches arrayed on a lopsided and bruised table.
But strangely enough, my fellow patients were good to me. They showed up. Some because they were hungry or bored, others glad for a chance not to be alone, among them the dignified, angry art historian in his old leather shoes, and the anorexic ballerina whose eyes were larger than the portions she ate. Every one of us struggled with this brutal, laming and soul destroying illness, yet somehow we were still alive. For another week. And for me, after decades wasted believing that only the grandest endeavors and creations had value, it was the fragile beginning of a new belief, one that allowed me to say with a quiet, certain conviction: there is beauty and value in the smallest of gestures.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.