By RAHN ADAMS
BOONE, N.C. (Aug. 22, 2019) – It’s easy to reel off the names of people whom we have hated or who have hurt us. Those folks are hard to forget. It’s often much harder to acknowledge the loved ones who have affected us in positive ways. The explanation is complicated.
That was the object lesson our pastor, Dana McKim, assigned to congregants a couple of Sundays ago at First United Methodist Church in Morganton. “Who do you hate?” Dana asked to begin his sermon. And later, “Who loves you?” instead of the more obvious “Who do you love?” Along with those first two questions, he offered suggestions of people or groups that might fall into either category.
They weren’t rhetorical questions, not really. He did want us to list—in our heads at least, not out loud—the objects of our antipathy and, on the flip side of that record, the names of those people who have let us know in some way that we are objects of their affection. Remember, love isn’t always obvious to the loved, nor is it always requited.
To make the sermon short (no, I won’t call it a long sermon, even though the Baptists did beat us to the steakhouse again that Sunday), I learned that I could quickly name the one, two or three people toward whom I hold strong negative feelings for whatever reason but had a harder time naming specific beings who love me beyond the general groupings of Family, Friends and Cats Who Want Food.
Maybe that failure says something about my character or my personality, my powers of observation or my sense of self-esteem. Maybe it says something else.
I thought about all this the other day when I walked out to the bean patch and found that our cute little cottage-garden bunny had nipped the leaves off most of our Royalty Purple Pod organic bean plants. I first noticed the absence of leaves—seeing something that was no longer there—and then I noticed that the rabbit had left behind a single bean pod—what we had been wanting from the plant since placing its seed in the soil a month earlier and then watching it grow.
What I didn’t notice until I looked at the photograph that I’d taken of the plant were its two pretty little purple blossoms. I went back later to take a clearer, closeup picture of those flowers for this essay, but they were already gone.
Standing in the bean patch that day, I was quick to acknowledge loss, to assess the damage and to note what could be salvaged from the situation. But I was too slow to appreciate the simple beauty of what had helped the plant complete its mission in the earth—the flowers that had allowed it to pollinate and then produce its fruit and seed.
In his essay “Resistance to Civil Government,” Henry Thoreau writes that we are like plants in that we need freedom, warmth and nourishment to thrive, and he excoriates the governmental entities that often rob us of those life-sustaining needs. Thoreau doesn’t say much, though, about expressing gratitude toward those individuals and groups who have given us what we need to succeed.
Similarly, I’m quick to think and write about, say, the worst English teacher I’ve ever had—a man I detested—but slower to acknowledge all the good and great English teachers I had before and after him, from my own mother, who taught me to read, and my sister, who taught me to write (left-handed, though I’m a natural righty) to numerous colleagues who taught me many things about teaching English and living life throughout my career in public education.
It wasn’t coincidental that my best high school English teacher immediately followed my worst teacher. She wasn’t my favorite simply because she was young, pretty and nice, while he had been old, ugly and mean. It wasn’t because she introduced me to the writings of the famous novelist who later became my mentor through our correspondence of about 10 years. She had me with her first note on my first essay.
On the first day of class that junior year, she asked us “advanced” students (which now included, again, my friend who had been kicked out of the mean teacher’s class the previous year) to take out one clean sheet of notebook paper and our freshly-sharpened #2 pencils, and to take the next several minutes—I forget exactly how long—to introduce ourselves to her. I think I wrote one paragraph, maybe two.
When she returned my paper the next day, her cursive notation below my writing began: “Rahn, you express yourself well in writing.” One other short comment gave me assurance not to worry about a specific concern that I had expressed in my paragraph.
I didn’t take that paper home and tape it to the refrigerator door, and if I saved it, I haven’t seen it again since I cleaned out my locker at the end of that school year well over four decades ago. I don’t need that sheet of paper, though, because I’ve always remembered that first sentence of encouragement word for word. It’s the first thought that comes to mind when I doubt myself as a writer.
So why didn’t I write about that beautiful teacher—whose guidance and encouragement I came to love—before I wrote about the English teacher I hated? I have told her in person how important she was to me, but it took me years to do so.
Without getting into an analysis of ever-changing cultural values and societal pressures, the words hate and love aren’t used in the same way to express the opposing passions they’re supposed to symbolize. In retired English teacher terms, which is how I think about almost everything now, the difference has to do with the person or perspective, as in first-person, second-person or third-person point of view.
We’re much quicker to say, “I hate him,” or “I hate Donald Trump,” or “I hate Hillary Clinton,” all of those sentences with third-person objects, than we are to say, “I love you,” in the second person.
Isn’t it always easier to express antipathy toward someone when they’re out of earshot than it is to state our affection directly to the people we love, especially to those who might be unpopular or difficult to openly adore? I think so.
And that doesn’t even take into consideration the diluted meanings of those two overused words—hate and love—which range from one jalapeno pepper to five habaneros on the red-hot chili pepper passion meter. I might say in jest, “I hate you,” to an enviable friend, or, “I just love that lying scoundrel,” after watching a late-night monologue. And you know exactly what I mean.
It ain’t easy to speak English good so’s your always understood. [sic]
So maybe I need to keep things simple. And maybe I need to learn how to say, “I love you,” as quickly as I can say, “I hate him.” Maybe some of the people I love need to be assured of my affection, sooner rather than later.
And maybe I don’t need to say, “I hate him,” at all, even if that’s how I feel. Why not? Because he won’t hear me, anyway, not unless I’m brave enough to say it to his face.
It’s one thing to speak the truth. It’s another thing to be heard.