In the book, “A tree grows in Brooklyn,” Francie and her little brother go to be vaccinated. They go to the doctor alone because their mother works. As kids do, they played in the mud before the visit. The doctor takes Francie first and says, “Filth, filth, filth, from morning to night. I know they’re poor, but they could wash. Water is free and soap is cheap. Just look at that arm, nurse.”
The book goes on to explain Francie’s reaction:
After the doctor’s outburst, Francie stood hanging her head. She was a dirty girl. That’s what the doctor meant. He was talking more quietly now asking the nurse how that kind of people could survive; that it would be a better world if they were all sterilized and couldn’t breed anymore. Did that mean he wanted her to die? Would he do something to make her die because her hands and arms were dirty from the mud pies?
She looked at the nurse… She thought the nurse might say something like:
Maybe this little girl’s mother works and didn’t have time to wash her good this morning,’ or, ‘You know how it is, Doctor, children will play in the dirt.’ But what the nurse actuallly said was, ‘I know, Isn’t it terrible? I sympathize with you, Doctor. There is no excuse for these people living in filth.’
A person who pulls himself up from a low environment via the bootstrap route has two choices. Having risen above his environment, he can forget it; or, he can rise above it and never forget it and keep compassion and understanding in his heart for those he has left behind him in the cruel upclimb. The nurse had chosen the forgetting way. Yet, as she stood there, she knew that years later she would be haunted by the sorrow in the face of that starveling child and that she would wish bitterly that she had said a comforting word then and done something towards the saving of her immortal soul. She had the knowledge that she was small but she lacked the courage to be otherwise.
When the needle jabbed, Francie never felt it. The waves of hurt started by the doctor’s words were racking her body and drove out all other feeling. While the nurse was expertly tying a strip of gauze around her arm and the doctor was putting his instrument in the sterilizer and taking out a fresh needle, Francie spoke up. ‘My brother is next. His arm is just as dirty as mine so don’t be suprised. And you don’t have to tell him. You told me.’
“You don’t have to tell him. You told me.” Those words hit me deep in my soul. How can we be so cruel? We must do better.
When I started painting portraits, I saw people seeing themselves in a new way. Alicia looked at her portrait and didn’t speak. I was worried. Didn’t she like it? “Are you OK? Do you like it?” She still couldn’t speak, but I could see her head moving. And tears were flowing into her smile. I still wasn’t sure. I touched her shoulder. She caught her breath. “I just never saw myself as beautiful before,” she said. I could tell it was the first time. The first glorious time. She was always beautiful, I just gave her the opportunity to see it. And she did see it, her gift to me.
Only cowards try to bring people down. Only cowards belittle people. Cowards bully people. Make fun of people. Cowards. Unacceptable. What if today we stood up, and told people, not what they’ve heard for years, not what they’ve believed about themselves, not what they reluctantly accept, but we tell them something they don’t know. We tell them the truths of “you are beautiful,” “you are lovely when you smile,” “you are a person never to be left,” “you are creative,” “you are imaginative,” “you are wonderful,” “you are my friend,” “you are possibility,” “you are loved,” “you are life!”
I have been hit by cruel words. And I have been graced by comforting words. Please, let us choose comfort. Let us choose grace. Tell someone they are beautiful. Give yourself that gift today.