Thursday, October 6, 2011

On making choices instead of excuses....

The picture above was captured from Google and it shows the housing projects that we lived in when I was a kid.  If I'm not mistaken, and it has been a long, long time, I grew up in the unit on the left. 

I have some pretty good memories of this place; my mother giving me a bath in the sink while I nibbled on Circus Peanuts, her Ma and Pa jokes that I could never seem to get enough of, our neighbor Ethel, who my mother says I called momma, the masks at the bottom of the stairs that always scared me.  We were probably the only white folks that lived in those projects; I didn't realize that at the time and wouldn’t have cared anyway.  Ethel was momma and the thread that joined us all was poverty.  The neighbors treated my mother and us kids well and color didn’t matter.

One of my earliest memories of mother is lying in bed and hearing her crying downstairs, then getting up, walking past the masks that scared me so, sitting in her lap and telling her that everything was going to be okay.  When I brought that up to her years later she said, shocked that I had remembered it, that she was probably crying about something my father had done, that I was probably 4 and it was around that time that my father decided that adulthood, responsibility and doing the right thing were distasteful to him and headed to California.

I have many fond memories of my mother and what she taught me, sometimes with her words, but more often than not by her example; which is the best way to teach.  She taught me compassion and empathy for others, how to be strong through adversity, and so much more.  There isn't a moment that goes by that I don't miss her.

I also remember many times that make me sad for her; when we were hungry and all she had was a dollar, the pain in her eyes when she knew that she couldn't do something for us, the time when I was six and she gave us every penny she had so that we could go to the circus.  It was never about her, it was always about us.  I know for me those Christmas’ with nothing under the tree hurt her far more than it did me.  My mother had a hard life and few people understood the depth of her dedication to her children.  There were many times that I even struggled to understand it.

I say all of this simply to illustrate that though others have gone through far worse, I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth.  I've lived in the projects among the unseen; the poorest of the poor.  I've gone to school hungry and gone to bed hungry, and been hungry at most points in between.  I've seen firsthand what a parent's inability to properly feed and clothe their children does to them.  I've seen what a parent goes through when they're unable to do anything for their kids for Christmas.  I say this not so that you pity me, I wouldn’t change a minute because it made me who I am, I say this instead to illustrate that you can leave your children a different legacy. 

I single out mothers here because, frankly, my dad wasn't a father or much of a man, so I can't provide first-hand knowledge of what fathers go through.  I've been fairly successful.  It wasn't always that way, but it's what my kids know, so I can't provide first person testimony of great days of trial and tribulation in trying to provide for my kids either.  All I can say is that my goal was always to make a better life for my kids than I was given by my father and that's how I measure parenting success. I probably won't win any Father-of-the-Year awards, but maybe I helped build the foundation that my son can use to win them.

I read a post today about 3 cousins who were arrested for robbery and several of the posters, in typical fashion, said how sad it was that they were raised that way.  Comments like this raise my hackles a bit because for every case where that is true there are probably two or three more where it simply isn't the case.  My mother went to her grave believing that a lot of negative stuff that happened in my family’s lives was her fault and that simply was not true.  You raise your kids to know right from wrong, but ultimately they have the power of choice and they often don’t do well in exercising that power.

The night that I heard my mother crying I clearly recall thinking that I wasn't going to be like my father, I was going to make something of myself and I was going to be better than that.  From that moment forward everything I did was with the intent of rising above my circumstances.  I stumbled along the way, I had to pick myself up by the bootstraps at times and suck it up, I had to put my nose to the grindstone and quit feeling sorry for myself at others, but I worked hard, treated others with kindness, and always tried to do the right thing.  It was a conscious decision, my choice.  I chose my path and didn't allow myself to be a victim.  I didn't let a pervert in Texas give me an excuse to become a pervert. Though at times I strayed, I managed to at least stay in the general vicinity of my chosen path and when I did stray, I corrected my course accordingly.

I have brothers that made different choices, some of those choices were, in my opinion, poor choices and some of those choices were very, very bad.  They aren't who they are because of their upbringing, they aren't who they are because our dad wasn't there; they are where they are because, for better or worse, that's the path they chose.  They may not even realize that they made those choices, but nonetheless they did, just like I did that night sitting in my mother's lap.

In my experience working in social services I had the opportunity to speak with prisoners whose parents gave them everything, both emotionally and materially.  I've seen outstanding people whose parents gave them nothing, either because they didn't have it give or, like my father, didn't want to give it.  Heck, I see people every day that grew up without a pot to pee in and are nevertheless good people who contribute to the community.  This isn't about what you have, it's about who you are; a person's character isn't measured by the make or model of the car they drive, how big their house is or whether it has wheels, what you wear or who you know, it's measured by how you act.

People make excuses for their poor behavior and we let them.  How many times have we seen a rapist or murderer or wife beater or thief use the excuse that they were molested or beaten as a kid?  And we buy it hook, line and sinker.  If you had a bad childhood you have my sympathy, but don’t use that as an excuse when you screw up; be responsible for your choices and suck it up. 

I didn’t come out of my youth without little dents and dings, but I have never used something that happened to me 30 years ago as an excuse for how I behave today.  Some would probably suggest that I had it easier than them and that my mother treated me differently, but I would submit to you that people who are less than satisfied with the choices they made will often look for anything to ease their mind and make them feel less responsible for their mistakes.

I guess my point is that people shouldn't be so quick to think that someone's bad choices are a reflection of their upbringing.  There is often a correlation, but more often than not antisocial behavior is simply the result of bad choices.  People need to take responsibility and we need to make them accountable because I’m tired of everyone being a victim.

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