Be Loved

Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried and a professor of Creative Writing at Texas State University, says that the “literary objective of a writer should be empathy,” that good writing enlarges the heart and makes readers feel for people, “even bad ones.”

There was a time in my life when I would have thrown Sethe, the central character of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, into the “bad one” category.  The novel is set in the years following the Civil War.  The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 gave slave owners the right to pursue runaways across state borders.  Morrison uses this setting to tell the story of Sethe, an escaped slave, who is hunted down by her former owner.  Rather than see her four children suffer as a slave like she had, she pushes them into a woodshed and tries to kill them.  One daughter dies.  The girl, who is unnamed throughout the book, is known by the only word her mother can afford to have engraved on her tombstone:  Beloved.

The point Morrison is making, I believe, is that we can’t know what we would do in a particular situation until we’re in it.

As a young mother, I would have insisted that nothing would ever be more important to me than my children.  I was completely immersed – submerged, even – in being a good mom.  Nothing, I believed, could make me voluntarily leave them.

I found out that desperation could.  I moved to Florida when my two younger children were seventeen and fourteen.  They didn’t want to move, so they stayed with their father for a while, and then they came to live with me.

My ex-husband and his family called me a bad mom.  They used the word “abandoned.”   But no one caused me more agony over it  than I did.

The same is true for Sethe, who is haunted by the dead daughter for many years.  But Beloved is a book about forgiving ourselves, especially for the things we do that are driven by desperation.

The book ends with Sethe in agony over her daughter.  “She left me.  She was my best thing.”

But Paul D corrects her: “You your best thing, Sethe.  You are.”

I now understand that, given the right set of circumstances, I am capable of just about anything.  That understanding gives me greater empathy for myself and for others.  That nothing outside of me defines me unless I allow it to.  And forgiving myself means I let myself be loved.

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