I had a strange experience the other day while spending some quality outdoor time with a friend. We were enjoying a beautiful day and snapping some photographs when my friend looked at me and asked with concern,”are you okay? You aren’t smiling in any of these pictures, are you upset?”
At first I was a little confused, as I was neither upset nor tired. My only feelings in the moment were happiness, contentment, and excitement. Outdoors on a gorgeous day is one of my happiest places to be, after all. But when I looked down at the camera, I could see it – an unconvincing attempt of a smile, with lips stretched horizontally across the face but not quite up at the ends into a real grin. It was a look I’ve seen a million times, except not in my own reflection. This was my mother’s smile, the exact same one she always had in photos – the one that always made me wonder why she even bothered smiling at all.
It’s hard to describe the feeling I felt when looking at my mother’s smile on my own face. Mostly shock, mixed with some sadness and disappointment. I mean, I know the reason why I wore the look and I wonder if, at least in part, it’s the same reason she did. Despite some significant differences between my mother and I, what we have in common are lives defined by emotional and psychological abuse. I was abused by her and my father, she was abused by her parents, and so on down the line. And even though our responses to such abuses were very different, the damage done to us was the same and it was that same look of brokenness that I saw staring back at me in that photo. There is something hauntingly familiar in the vacant expression of a crushed spirit.
The unfortunate but true reality is that my mother is an angry and spiteful woman who would rather stab you in the chest than show you an ounce of concern. She even frequently bragged that she never felt mercy for anyone – a truth she demonstrated on a daily basis. I, on the other hand, feel everyone’s pain as if it were my own and frequently, though not intentionally, end up hurting myself while trying to help them. Though I was equally horrified at the sight of her smile on my face, I also felt a pang of empathy for the woman who bore me. Which isn’t to say I excuse her. She really is, if you can imagine it, more like an untamed lion infected with rabies than a human being. You can pity it and even feel compassion for it’s condition, but no matter how safe it may seem while asleep, it will kill you the moment you’re within reach. My mother is the exact same sort and you can only feel anything resembling compassion for her while at a very…very safe distance. Otherwise, you’re only thoughts are of survival…or death.
But even so, that half-hearted smile looked the same on both our faces and there’s really no ignoring the brokenness behind them. From a distance, I do feel sympathy for the rabid lion who daily ripped my soul to shreds – not because I excuse her, but because I know well the pain that drove her to such a reprehensible state. Do I think she’s responsible for how she treated me? Yes. It was her choice to let the pain turn into a narcissistic hatred. And it is still her choice to continue in such hatred and vile darkness without even the desire to change. She has chosen her lot. Do I care to ever be near her again? No. Cohabitation with the rabid lion would be safer. But my heart is still sad that she chose not to overcome the evil done to her, and is instead a willing conduit for it. I cannot help her or save her, but from a distance, I do indeed pity her.
I am reminded that she and I were both infected with the same deadly poison. And I am reminded that I have the choice whether or not to allow darkness to consume me or to choose light. The reality of that makes me fearfully fall on my face before God. Begging for mercy, for help, for healing, and to ask that I be spared from the fate that every single person in my family has met.
Lord, please keep the darkness away. If I must bear continual pain, then keep me in the brokenness until you overcome it with love. Do not let me turn to hatred and darkness for comfort. Let the fires of my heart burn with love, justice, truth, and mercy. Let me only hate that which is evil. Lead me always into your light and goodness. Amen.