By Jesse Turri
Malcolm knocked on the door which was left half open by the last nurse, and slowly entered the room. He looked around and saw a figure move behind the dividing curtain which was pulled shut. He blinked, took a breath and said confidently, “Hello Mrs. Wilson, I’m Malcolm Bradley, the chaplain. Would you like to talk?”
The hospital room smelled of sickness, wounds and medicine. Lights and beeping sounds emanated from high tech medical devices filling the room with a sort of dismal, disembodied sterility. Suddenly, the dividing curtain was pulled open revealing a sickly old white woman laying in a bed which was entangled with tubes. She looked at Malcolm, frowned and yelled with fiery force, “not now! get the hell out!”
Malcolm had been yelled at before. He understood quite well where indignation came from. Malcolm also understood power. For him the two were closely related. He knew that to exist was to, in some sense, possess at least some small amount of power. Nothing was omnipotent. Throughout human history it was evident to Malcolm that power did indeed transfer from one object to another–as the physicists would say–or for that matter, from one empire to another, or even from one person to another. And through all of this he discovered two basic attributes of human beings: they will always strive to accumulate power, and always weep when it is lost. Malcolm had witnessed it all through the years: the abuse, the denial, and the surrender of power. Wisely, Malcolm observed how ironic it was that the virtues of loyalty, discipline, and self-sacrifice, that were valued so highly in the individual, could be the very properties that created destructive organizational engines of war and inevitably bound men to malevolent systems of authority.
Malevolent systems, however, were not the only things that used power based control.
Malcolm’s father was also quite fond of such methods. In fact, Malcolm would do anything he could to defend against his father’s authoritarian hand. At first he tried to avoid it by being good, pleading or begging for mercy, like we all do. However this was futile in Malcolm’s case because, judging by his father’s abusive temperament, Malcolm always seemed to disappoint somehow. His father was especially critical of Malcolm after the old man would come home from the bar late at night. In these cases It was not unusual for Malcolm to face brutal physical punishment by his father’s hand if he messed up more than three notes of the 18th century Protestant Church hymn which he would be forcibly made to sing in the middle of the night. Now Rest Beneath Night’s Shadow was one of his father’s favorites.
When he realized that avoiding his father’s power by being good or begging for mercy was not working, Malcolm tried other things. He tried to postpone it, weaken it, avert it, blame someone else, hide, and promise over and over never to do it again. But ultimately, in the end, he tried to escape from it. One time, when he was 10 years old, Malcolm ran away. He had forged his mother’s signature on his report card and been caught by his teacher. He knew his father would not forgive this sin without forced penitence. Unfortunately, he only made it to his neighbors house, about a mile down the road, when the kindly gentleman who lived in that yellow house brought him back to his father who was waiting with clenched fists.
Malcolm would face inequality and adversity his entire life. In fact it was his mother who prepared him for this by telling him, just before she had died, that the burdens of inequality are suffered most heavily by those who are weaker. Malcolm loved his mother dearly, and he trusted every word she had ever spoken to him. After all, she was the only person who tried to protect Malcolm from his father. Her words never rang more true for him than when that small, soft, gentle and radiant creature endured the merciless fury of his grizzly bear sized father, over and over again in Malcolm’s stead.
Malcolm’s father was capricious. He was hardened, defiled and poisoned by the maliciousness that life could bring. Needless to say, there was a rather large power gap between father and son, and the old man liked it that way. He liked being the powerful one and he wasn’t bashful about robbing his son of all dignity.
The old man had a story too of course, Malcolm knew this. At the time it was impossible, but looking back now as an adult it was clear to see how generations of past transgressions are so easily passed down by broken, imperfect parents to their innocent children. Some children inherit their grandmother’s diamonds, others inherit calamity. Malcolm often thought a lot about the sociological implications of this generational sin–the history of the Native Americans was a good, or rather sad, example. What must it do to a people group when, for centuries, they’re systematically conquered, butchered, beaten down, betrayed, herded around and dehumanized? Might it affect the psyche of some people? Might it break their spirit? The cyclical nature of poverty–spiritual and economic–Malcolm learned, could only be understood in this generational context. Who we are today is by some degree defined by all of the past occasions that preceded this present moment. It is true that we are only guilty for the wrongs we do, but we do indeed also suffer the effects of what others have done. Malcolm, an African American man whose father abused his wife and child and ultimately abandoned them both to destitution, is one who had suffered some of the worst of these effects.
Through it all, however, it was on those dark nights, after the beatings had subsided, the two of them cowering together under a blanket in his room, that his mother would whisper those precious words to him, the ones he would never forget: “Don’t let the world make you cold Malcolm. Let love be like a blanket to keep your heart warm.”
Malcolm’s mother knew that the natural inequalities between people can, and do, make the estrangements in life become wider and deeper. Indeed it was possible to gain great unilateral strength, Malcolm thought, this was obvious to anyone who studied the empires of history, but this comes at a tremendous price. Great unilateral power only comes by impoverishing relationships. You must learn to stop caring about the suffering of others, and ultimately, you have no choice but to become numb.
As Malcolm progressed through life, the words of his mother, and the seeds of love and self-sacrifice which she had planted in his heart, took root in him. He understood powerlessness better than most, and he had come to see that, if there was indeed any hope in healing the broken, seamless web of interdependence in the world, then all would have to take turns carrying the burden of love when one is found to be less loving. Life, for Malcolm, was about relationships. He eventually came to the indisputable conclusion that those of larger size and increased power must undergo greater suffering and bear a greater burden in sustaining relationships, otherwise the weak will, inevitably, only become weaker and the poor, poorer. Malcolm felt very deeply that when all hope is lost, when all respect and dignity is stripped away, people do not fight back. No, when you are made to feel small and insignificant, when your power is taken, you don’t get angry and you don’t stand up for yourself. You fade away into the background and become invisible.
The woman’s abrupt, inflamed tone caused Malcolm’s heart to flutter, his breathing to speed up and his muscles to tighten. For a split second he started to react as if his life were in danger, his hulking body, the size of a plated Rhinoceros, seemed to initiate the fight-or-flight response that is so critical to any animal’s survival. In all honesty, Malcolm was a bit shocked by the way this helpless, sickly, ornery old woman in the hospital bed, with copious amounts of tubing sticking out of her, chose to speak to him. But Malcolm did not fight. He chose instead to smile tenderly at the woman, and then he turned toward the door to take his leave. As he was about to exit the room he stopped and spoke to the elderly patient in a soft, caring, sincere voice, “I’m glad I could help you.”
Malcolm closed the door behind him and stood still in the busy hospital hallway. The clatter of footsteps and ambient conversation echoed all around him, and the smell of sickness, wounds and medicine transitioned back to industrial strength cleaning solution. A burst of cold, unwelcoming air wafted up the wind-tunnel like corridor, reminding everyone it touched that the this drafty, steril institution was not their final home. They could not stay here forever.
Malcolm walked down the hall toward the lobby of the hospital where golden afternoon sun poured through the large front windows. Just then a tune popped in his head and he began to sing softly to himself:
Now rest beneath night’s shadow
The woodland, field, and meadow,
The world in slumber lies;
But Thou, my heart, awake thee,
To prayer and song betake thee;
Let praise to thy Creator rise.