A few years before I was born, my mother was in a fairly serious car accident.
The accident, thankfully, wasn’t fatal for anyone involved, but my mother sustained serious injuries to her knees and legs. Despite multiple surgeries, those injuries would forever hinder her mobility.
Resentment, Empathy and Understanding
Two decades later, and following additional surgeries to her hips and neck, my mother was stricken by arthritis, further limiting her mobility. This negatively impacted her ability to work, and soon, she was forced out of her job.
She soon had to spend around 95% of her waking hours sitting in a reclining chair or wheelchair. My mother is kind, loving, and infinitely generous, but her quality of life has not been great. I’d like to say that I was always a kind and understanding son, that I was willing and proud to help her with her medicine, her paperwork, and her appointments, but that would be a lie.
During the first year my mother’s situation became truly dire. The first year her disability started to impact my family. I was often confused, frightened of the future, and resentful. I was resentful of our bad luck. I was resentful of my mother because I saw her as the cause of this bad luck.
To explore the nature of resentment a bit more, I’d like to tell you about its cruel role in the story of my mother and me. This is how it lead me down the difficult road toward a greater sense of empathy and understanding.
The Creation of Resentment
I was often confused, frightened, and resentful, but really, confusion and fear are the precursors of resentment. Resentment, in most cases, cannot exist without some combination of the two. So how did confusion and fear come into my life, and how did they play a role in the situation with my mother?
I had just come in from a carefree afternoon at the beach when my mother called to tell me that she had lost her job. She was sobbing, and I listened in silence as she told me how her company — for whom she worked more than 20 years — had grown tired of extending the medical leave she required following her latest round of surgeries. They wished to cut their losses, and neither my mother’s loyalty to the company nor her famous work ethic could save her.
The confusion was immediate. How could her company fire her? Didn’t her boss tell her two weeks ago to take as much time as she needed? Hadn’t he promised that they’d have her back during recovery? Hadn’t she sacrificed enough hours of her life behind one of their desks to feel confident that they’d look after one of their own? That confusion turned to intense — though impotent — anger. What could I do, call the office and yell at her boss? Demand that they change their minds? There was nothing to be done. I told her I loved her, hung up, and spent the rest of the weekend in a bewildered daze.
Fear and uncertainty defined the next year of my life — our lives — after that call. How would my mom pay rent? How would she settle her medical bills? How could she find another job when walking and driving were becoming increasingly more difficult? If she couldn’t find a job, and if her savings were exhausted, would she be homeless? Would we be homeless? Would I need to put school aside for a while and focus on caring for her, caring for the household that had, in an instant, become compromised?
I feared for the wellbeing of my mom and myself, but I especially feared for my future. I feared the sacrifices that I, a young man barely 20, may need to make. I feared the things I may have to let fall by the wayside. I feared the obligations and responsibilities that I would take on my shoulders, the things I may be asked to do, the maturation that would be accelerated.
These fears, were primarily self-centered. I admit: I was selfish. I was a boy, lacking in life experience, who was used to stability and a semblance of certainty in his life. In what seemed like an instant, my family lost both of those things. I lacked the maturity to empathize fully with anyone’s situation other than my own. I only thought about how this would impact me and how my life would change for the worse. That’s how resentment grew.
The Growth of Resentment
My resentment was intense but silent. As much as I made my mother the object of my ill will that first year, I never, ever raised my voice at her. I am not, nor have I ever been, an aggressive person. As such, my resentment was subdued and often manifested itself in passive aggression.
I “forgot” to pick up prescriptions. I “forgot” to inform her of plans I made, which often meant she’d need to find someone else at the last minute to help her out. I avoided extended conversations with her. I avoided those multi-hour-long heart-to-hearts we had often had in the past. My communication was short, brisk, and focused only on the necessities.
Talking to her for too long, annoyed me. Seeing her sit around while I ran errand after errand, completed chore after chore, annoyed me. Her existence, what her life was reduced to, annoyed me.
I knew she was suffering, I knew she was in pain, but I couldn’t prevent myself from blaming her. I blamed her not for her injury or for her disability, but for our circumstances. I blamed her for the significant detour my life — our lives — had taken.
Insights from Experience
I spent nearly a year resenting my mother. I spent almost a year blaming her for something that was never her fault.
It took me over a year to realize that my blame and resentment was severely misplaced. It took hours of reflection, and some very frank discussions with my mother to uncover the extent of my selfishness, and the extent of my immaturity. While discovering those things, I learned two essential lessons about myself and the nature of my resentment.
I didn’t resent my mother; I resented the cruelty and indifference that led to her situation. My mother, in the context of my resentment, was simply a decoy, an easy, tangible target onto which I could release my confusion and my fear. In reality, I was disillusioned at the circumstances that had led to our situation. I was terrified that someone’s life could be altered so quickly. I was terrified that my mom — a hard worker, a generous, loving woman — was suffering for seemingly no reason at all. I was horrified at the suddenness and cosmic indifference of it all. I was horrified, and I was confused, and in turn, I attempted to protect myself with anger and resentment. But I couldn’t simply resent the universe; I couldn’t shake my fist at it. Instead, I settled for a target who was tangible, mortal, and more immediately present in my life.
Times of crisis show us our true character. My primary concern after observing my mother’s worsening condition and learning of her firing was myself. I worried, on some level, about my mother’s wellbeing and mental health, but my primary concern was for me. At the time, that seemed normal. We’re told to “look out for #1,” aren’t we?
Now that I’m a few years down the road and a few years wiser, I see my immaturity and selfishness. I also realize that the crisis — and it was a crisis — revealed my true nature. It revealed who I was at that time: a selfish, immature boy who needed to be challenged, and who needed to develop a little more empathy.
I have not faced a similar “crisis” since, but I’m now more equipped to observe my reaction should another one occur. Back then, I didn’t think about how I reacted to the crisis; I reacted. There was no reflection going on, and as such, there was no growth, no change, no adaptation.
Applying These Insights
Have you ever cared for someone close to you — a parent, grandparent, significant other — who had a disability? Did their disability affect your life? Did it render your future uncertain? Did the uncertainty cause confusion, fear, and misplaced resentment?
If so, you’re a lot like me. Maybe you’ve grown since you’ve experienced that resentment, or perhaps you still have some growth ahead of you. Either way, take to mind the two biggest lessons I learned from my year wasted on selfish, misplaced resentment:
- The person with the disability is often not the true target of your resentment; they are simply the most convenient target.
- How we react to and process a difficult situation says a lot about our fundamental nature as a person. We often cannot control our reaction, it is instinctual. We can, however, control our long-term behavior. If we do not reflect upon our initial reaction, then we cannot adequately adapt our behavior going forward. This keeps us from developing as a person.
We are not perfect. We make mistakes, we misjudge, and we misplace our emotions. As long as we’re willing to reflect, and as long as we keep empathy and understanding as close to our hearts as possible, then we’re moving in the right direction.