It’s amazing how many adults don’t know how to do this, so consider it a “post-kindergarten education” for all of us grown-ups. Someone you know probably needs to see it, so please share!
1) If you had control over the thing that went wrong, then it’s your fault. If someone else also had control over it, then it’s ALSO their fault…but that doesn’t make it “not your fault”, so it’s time to fess up and take responsibility for your part in letting things go wrong. Step one is to admit you screwed up–to yourself, first, and then to whomever you caused trouble for. Don’t try to play down your responsibility (and don’t exaggerate it, either), because that will destroy trust and make the next steps harder. Don’t ask for forgiveness, yet, because at this point, you haven’t done anything to fix the situation.
2) Do everything you can to fix what went wrong. If you can’t fix it, try to compensate the person you wronged in an appropriate way. Money is typically NOT appropriate compensation, unless you deprived someone of physical wealth that they otherwise would have had/acquired. (This includes breaking something that belongs to someone else, or which is yours and would have benefited someone else.)
3) Ask for forgiveness. Keep in mind that unless you literally fixed EVERYTHING that went bad because of your screw-up (which is usually not possible), what you’re actually asking for is MERCY, not justice. Nobody is obligated to give you mercy (by definition!), so be grateful if they do. If they don’t, be understanding and act like a decent person, regardless.
4) Strive not to screw up in this way, again. The more you repeat your mistake, the harder it will be to make amends, in the future. If you ever completely fail to make amends, your relationship with a person will be permanently damaged.
As a final note, this also applies to things that people like to claim “just happened”, like scheduling conflicts, not having money with to pay someone what you promised them, and so on. If you booked the appointment/promised money/spent too much money, you had control over that event. Please be brave and make amends whenever it’s needed! Your social- and family-life will be much better for it.
I’m of the generation that started off in one world and then crossed into the next during my formative years.
While those before me barely understood how to use a typewriter, I spent much of my childhood building computers and typing at a rate that would put most secretaries to shame.
My generation was the first to start off talking on a phone with a 6-foot long spiral cord, and then carry around high-powered computers in our pockets as we entered adulthood.
As soon as we entered kindergarten or first grade–since, back then, kindergarten wasn’t required–our teachers did a little bit of math on their abacuses and realized that when we graduated high school, it would be the year 2000. I know you think I’m kidding about the abacuses, but when I started school, that’s actually what we did math on.
Graduating high school in that seminal year somehow carried a lot of weight.
It wasn’t just a number; it meant that humanity was getting a sort of “new start”, in the minds of a lot of people. Therefore, it was generally instilled in us from an early age that it was up to us and those born at a similar time to change the world drastically and, essentially, fix all the epic screw-ups of our parents, grandparents, and every previous generation.
The funny thing is, while we were starting to learn the world and contemplate how we might change it when we finally got all grown up, it actually did change into something that nobody before our generation could have fully expected or adapted to.
Just about every piece of academic information suddenly became free. Yes, I know that if you want to really drill into a topic, you still have to take a free online course from an actual university; but essentially, it became the new big thing that, if you didn’t know something, you could type it into Yahoo, Excite, Altavista, and later, Google, and then…you knew it.
This was really cool, and our parents, teachers, and, once we got all grown up, our bosses thought that this was the best thing ever…until they actually got a taste of what it was like to be around someone who knew more than they did.
Not long into my adult-ness I got hired on as a Computer Assisted Drafter at a door company. This wasn’t because I’d ever done drafting of any kind before, and certainly not because I knew a thing about wood-working, beyond a few projects in elementary school; but the boss had realized that the digital age–whatever that meant–had arrived, and all the famous ink-and-paper magazines said that it was going to make her rich if she embraced it. Therefore, she eagerly hired the first freshly minted grown-up who knew a particularly great amount about computers to do all the computer-thingies that she and her other employees didn’t really understand.
My first task was to start learning the drafting program, and my second task was to remove the plethora of viruses and other malware from all the computers on the network so that the program would actually run. That was cool, and dollar signs began to flash before my boss’s eyes.
My next task was to actually start drafting. This was easy enough: plug in the numbers, draw the lines, and print it out on a really big piece of paper so the guys in the shop could build it. Except that the head of the woodworking department, who was over me, didn’t trust anything that wasn’t written in graphite. Therefore, my final task before I could be happily away in my new career was to learn how to teach a person born in the ignorant world of pencils and paper that computers could do things better. We were running Windows Millennium Edition, so this wasn’t an easy task. Ultimately, though, despite all the difficulties this entailed, the company failed for the most venerable and inane of reasons: the boss liked to play fast and loose with the books, and apparently “going digital” didn’t make that any more legal.
From this, it quickly became apparent that simply knowing how to do one’s job wasn’t enough to be successful at making money. One first had to figure out how to deal with the obtuseness of human nature.
Funny thing: in all of our classes on learning “the theory of how to do everything”, not one class was taught on how to actually get along in society. Stuff like “how to talk to your boss without making him mad” and “what a checkbook is for, and how to make the numbers be nice to you” just weren’t considered important. Thusly, Millennials, for all our unique insights into what technology does and doesn’t change, and despite being the foremost experts in turning an ignorant world into a knowledgeable one, it’s become a famous fact that, as a group, we simply can’t hold down jobs to save our lives. People are just too stupid to know when they’re being stupid, and being as how (according to everyone more than 10 years older than us) we were supposed to teach the world how to drastically change for the better, we’ve largely done what any brilliantly unwise person would do and tried to actually teach people how to stop being stupid.
Wikipedia has the following to say about the Millennial generation:
Millennials [were predicted to] become more like the “civic-minded” G.I. Generation with a strong sense of community both local and global…[Some attribute] Millennials with the traits of confidence and tolerance, but also a sense of entitlement and narcissism…Millennials in adulthood are detached from institutions and networked with friends…Millennials are somewhat more upbeat than older adults about America’s future, with 49% of Millennials saying the country’s best years are ahead though they’re the first in the modern era to have higher levels of student loan debt and unemployment…Some employers are concerned that Millennials have too great expectations from the workplace. Some studies predict that Millennials will switch jobs frequently, holding many more jobs than Gen Xers due to their great expectations…[Some describe] Millennials’ approach to social change as “pragmatic idealism,” a deep desire to make the world a better place combined with an understanding that doing so requires building new institutions while working inside and outside existing institutions.
That last part is a real pain in the butt. As children and young adults, we were stuck playing the game of, “Yes, teacher/parent/employer, you are older and therefore much wiser than I am. Sure, I’ll teach you how to open your word processor…again.” Being the lowest person on the social totem pole because of your age, and having the best insights about how to actually get stuff done in this strange new world is a really fast path toward unemployment, unless you learn to (A) forget that you know what you’re doing, and become satisfied with doing everything the stupid way–at least until your so-called superiors retire, die, or stop telling you how to do things–or (B) try to be your own boss…just like every other unemployed person. So, “changing the world”, apparently, must first start from a position of not doing anything to change the world, or being jobless.
About that. Changing the world, I mean. Sitting on the fence between the world of mostly-unwilling ignorance and the world of willful ignorance means that pretty much every modern “social change” movement not created and run by Millennials looks a lot like a pipe dream created by those who grew up with a search engine good enough to avoid ever having to look at anything they don’t want to. While the older generation could, in most cases, rightfully claim to be doing the best they knew how, based on the information they were given, the generation after us sounds a little tinny when they say that “something is a basic human right” because they read it on SaveTheWorldWithCuteCatPictures.com. How do these people who started life with the best access to information that the world has ever seen still not realize that the kinds of supposedly radical changes they’re totally bent on bringing about have either failed or caused total economic, social, political, and governmental meltdowns every time they succeeded?
Sure, it must be a good idea to let Russia keep pushing west, through Ukraine, in spite of the treaty they signed at the end of the Cold War. Maybe if we shake our fingers at them hard enough, they’ll march back to their own territory like Germany did in 1939.
The truly galling thing about this, though, isn’t the naivety of post-Millennial 20-somethings, but how the previous generation seems to have decided that if something shows up on the Internet when they type “social justice in Crimea” into Google, it must be absolute truth. Did they totally forget about voting for education reforms that involved teaching HTML code to high school kids who showed any particular aptitude in computing? It would take me under an hour to create a not-too-shabby-looking web page saying that cheeseburgers cause cancer because cows are naturally-occurring GMOs. But I won’t bother to do that, because it’s already been done, and a lot of people already believe that cheeseburgers cause cancer because…”GMOs!!!!”…to a sufficient degree that they’re willing to start a protest in front of Burger King. They might even bring their very-skinny-but-still-cute-enough-to-post-pictures-on-Pinterest vegan cats with them.
To put all this another way, Millennials who really absorbed and believed what they were taught in school tend not to start “blooming” until they’re in their thirties, if ever.
Wikipedia also notes that some sociologists refer to us as the “Peter Pan Generation”, and as horrible as it might seem to be called that, I can’t help but agree with this assessment. How does a person learn how life works before the dawn of the Information Age, then learn how to be the fore-runners of that age, then learn how to avoid pissing people off by being too good at it, and then finally learn how to have a career (read: wait for the older generations to die or retire) without taking a long time doing it? If we’re lucky, we’ll have started our careers by age 35, and not hate ourselves for the dead end careers we picked back before all the careers that were profitable and fun switched with all the careers that didn’t used to be. Some of us are bloody lucky to land a “career” at a fast food restaurant by virtue of having a bachelor’s degree. And our parents’ generation is all up in arms because we complain about having $50,000 of student debt and want the minimum wage to be raised.
Well, except for those Millennials who, against everyone’s wishes, didn’t attend or finish college.
Sure, there are a lot of people my age who managed to buy degrees that will eventually pay themselves off. However, most of the people I know who were born around 1982 did what all the adults told them to and ended up with little more than very expensive pieces of paper and a few years wasted in college housing.
One the upside, additional time spent learning things means that, to an even greater degree, those who spent at least a little time studying the “cutting edge” in such institutions know more about this “brave, new world” than people who didn’t attend college, at all. On the down side, we’re once again stuck trying to convince people older than us that we do, in fact, know some better ways in which to do things, that are different from how they’ve always been done, without getting into trouble for saying so.
It’s worth noting, however, that there is a very sizeable contingent of Millennials who have figured out how to “live the American Dream.” Overwhelmingly, these are the people who were uninterested in, or just too stupid to understand all that new-fangled computer stuff, back in high school. Sorry, but those Millennials who were good at these things know exactly who and what I’m talking about. They did as their parents and grandparents did, before them, and got jobs doing stuff that wasn’t, in any way, going to change the world. Some examples include accounting, vehicle repair, construction work, bartending, marketing, and anything involving keeping your head down in a bureaucracy. Perhaps the rest of us realized too late that anything that has generated tax revenue consistently for a few thousand years will, by extension of a famous proverb, result in job security–even if it’s the sort of thing that only a trained monkey could totally avoid feeling suicidal about. Surprisingly, most people who actually got into computers when Forbes was predicting that people who got into computers would get rich, currently do computer repair or technical support for close to minimum wage. After all, how much are people really willing to spend to keep a computer running when they can get a cheap-and-crappy new one for around $300?
I’ve never met a business owner who wasn’t willing to save a penny, now at the cost of a dollar, later. Computers are like that, and contrary to what one might expect, business owners are willing to pay more than most to keep theirs running. That should put things nicely into perspective.
This has been a rather long rant, and what I really mean to say by all of it is that people of other generations gripe way too much about people of my generation not “hitting the ground running”, “grabbing life with both hands”, “pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps”, and all that jazz. The fact is, we did all that, and it turned out that both the ground and life were covered in grease. A lot of us fell flat on our faces with suddenly-ending careers, nervous breakdowns and other mental health catastrophes, stock market crashes, unrealistic expectations instilled in us from an early age, and so on. That we’re at all willing to try–yet again–to get back on our feet in spite of how painful and discouraging our early adulthood was, is a sign of just how great this generation really is.
And we are going to change the world, damn it.
Sometimes, when someone touches me, I flinch before realizing that I want to be touched. Then, I think about it for a second, and convince myself that it’s OK, but by that time, the lovely person has already assumed that I had rejected her. I don’t know why it’s like this; it didn’t used to be this way, but somehow, across a distance of a few decades, a part of me has grown to expect things to turn out badly, even when the evidence before my eyes suggests otherwise.
Sometimes, I’m so terrified that one more thing will go wrong, that when I want to reach out and take a chance on an amazing person, I convince myself that there’s no point in trying, but don’t realize that it’s just my insecurities talking until the opportunity has already passed.
Somewhere between being hit by family members and foolishly marrying a woman who started abusing me within days of saying “I do”, I forgot how to accept the idea that, sometimes, when a person reaches out with her hand, it’s because she loves me, and not because she wants to hurt me until she feels better about herself.
I wonder why, despite the anecdotal evidence we see around us, we automatically assume that if someone is being hurt by a person of the opposite gender, it’s a man hurting a woman. I wonder why we assume that the only wounds that hurt are physical ones, and that the only real violence is the kind that leaves a mark.
I’ve read that nearly half of all domestic violence is perpetrated by women, but overwhelmingly, only men get punished for it. I think that this is because women are better at talking about their emotions and admitting to being hurt, whereas men are more likely to be silent when they’re in pain.
A friend once told me that he had been repeatedly raped by his ex-girlfriend. He was beside himself with shame because he had let her convince him that he deserved it, and still couldn’t quite shake the belief that she was right. He was a large man with a delicate heart, who couldn’t bring himself to hurt a woman, no matter what she did to him. He couldn’t believe that if he called a rape hotline, the person on the other end would even listen to his story without condemning him as a faker. So, I called for him, and screened out two hotlines who clearly believed that only women could be raped, or didn’t care if the opposite had, in fact, just happened, because this hotline was “just for women”. There were no hotlines for men. When I finally found someone who would listen compassionately and take what I was saying seriously, I gave him the number, but he never called, because he was too ashamed.
Still, I choose to love women rather than hate them—not because they’re inherently more pure or decent than men, but because if I didn’t make this choice, I might become bitter and angry like the people who have hurt me, who believed that they had the right to hurt me because, at some point, someone had hurt them. Sometimes, I wonder how many violent offenders have been created by people who thought they had a right to hurt one gender or another, in retribution for crimes long past. Ted Bundy hated women because at least one woman hurt him when he was a child; and how many men have been hurt by bitter women and over-zealous law enforcement officers because of the pain that abusive men have caused to women? Will the cycle ever end, or will we continue to say that our hurts are, somehow, more important, and act like our own rights are all that really matter, unconcerned with what that means for other people?
I would like to see people raising awareness for men’s issues in the same way that we see people raising awareness for women’s issues.
I wish that feminism were always really about gender equality, and not so commonly an outlet for women who are simply angry at the other half of their species. I wish that we would do away with terms like “feminism” and “masculism” as references to causes worth supporting or condemning, depending on which gender one identifies with. I wish people would organize “equalism” rallies and shout down people who show up with the obvious intent to support only one gender.
I see beauty in the ocean of yin and the fire of yang, and I believe that neither one should try to “convert” the other with the dogmas of academics or politicians. I see men taught to be silent and timid because they can’t communicate emotions as well as women. I see women being taught to be silent and timid because they lack the logistical talent that men tend to be born with. Whether we call it “NonViolent Communication” or “Management Training”, if it teaches someone to be afraid to speak up and be honest, then it’s broken and abominable.
I’m hoping to find someone who will understand that I’m afraid of what women might to do me, but am willing to offer my heart anyway—even if I flinch, at first. I’m looking for a woman who chooses to see me as a unique individual, and not a surrogate upon which to lash away the pain of past wrongs.
I’m hoping that, somewhere, the word, “partner”, really refers to equality in all things—regardless of who has which talents, or who makes more money. I would like to see a world where it’s considered normal to be a “stay-at-home dad”, where people consider such a position to be just as honorable as working at a technology firm. I want to see a world where men and women both have the freedom to take on stereotypical gender roles because that’s what makes them happy, or to do something entirely different for the same reason.
I would like to hear it called “manly” to give a woman a foot massage.
I would like to hear someone say, “I am woman, hear me roar”, in a quiet voice, before kissing a baby.
In a perfect world, we would hear laughter at this poem, because all of the above is a ridiculous re-hashing of the past, but for now, let’s just share a smile and a promise.
Love is wanting to take her out to eat, but knowing you can’t afford it, and offering to cook, instead.
Love is opening your heart instead of your wallet when it would be easier just to spend money.
Love is when you know that you could get into bed with her just by being shallow, and insisting on getting to know her first—even if that means losing the opportunity, forever.
Love is seeking a “yes”, rather than avoiding a “no”, and being happy with whichever you get.
Love is knowing when to say yes, and being patient until then.
Love is seeing that the lawn hasn’t been mowed, but thanking him for doing the laundry, instead of complaining about the yard.
Love is when you say a kind word when an insult might be more appropriate.
Love is swallowing your pride and saying you’re sorry.
Love is writing something sweet on a post-it every morning before work, even when you’re mad at each other.
Love is giving your partner the last piece of chocolate.
Love is giving someone a massage when your own back hurts.
Love is cooking food that you can’t or won’t eat, because you know he likes it.
Love is eating “burnt offerings” with a smile, and then asking for seconds.
Love is abandoning a closely-held belief because it hurts someone you care about.
Love is choosing to support your partner’s eccentric ideology, even if it doesn’t entirely make sense.
Love is being unafraid to discuss religion, politics, or anything else—and always being willing to change your mind when a good point is made.
Love is choosing dialectic over of debate.
Love is when you give without caring whether you will receive.
Love is when you work a job you hate, so you’ll both have a place to come home to.
Love is dancing badly to terrible music, and enjoying it anyway, because it was your partner’s turn to choose the night’s activity.
Love is observing “date night” no matter how busy you both are.
Love is sitting through an embarrassing class or lecture so that you’ll know how to please her.
Love is learning to be satisfied, whether he figures it out or not.
Love is knowing when to hold her close, knowing when to give her space, and realizing that you need to ask, because you don’t have a clue.
Love is answering him patiently even if you think he should know better; and sometimes, love is admitting that you don’t have a clue what you want, either, and deciding to be OK with not getting it.
Love is accepting the love that is given, even when you don’t speak the other person’s language.
Love is learning the language of your partner, and giving him what he wants, rather than what you want.
Love is realizing that whatever love is, it’s definitely not what’s in movies and popular novels.
Love is reading those novels with her, anyway, no matter how silly you think they are.
Love is sitting through all seven seasons of Gilmore Girls, even though neither of you can keep up with the subtitles, and she keeps pausing it every few seconds so you can read them.
Love is making it worth his while to keep watching.
Love is setting reasonable but firm boundaries and sticking to them.
Love is respecting each other’s boundaries.
Love is accepting the sovereignty of another person, while also accepting the sovereignty of yourself.
Love is offering olive branches until the whole orchard dies.
Love is forgiveness.
Love is wishing she would quit smoking because you want to be with her a little longer,
But still watching the sunset through a cloud of burning ash, because that’s how you can be here with her, now.
Love is the act of changing the bed pan of someone who doesn’t look like the person you married, and realizing that the good times are still happening.
Love is almost dying of a broken heart after the funeral service,
But deciding to keep going because you know that she would want you too.
Love is the blue sky, and the trees, and the fresh flowers over your new bed.
Love is smiling at a stranger as you plant some fresh flowers on the grave of your ancestor.
March 2nd, 2014
This is an essay I wrote for an English class in college (around 2001). It pertains to the book, “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” which is a gripping true story about an American Hmong family and their epileptic daughter, Lia, and their struggles to define what “good care” is, and the cultural clash that ensued with non-Hmong Americans who wanted to help. Per my then-professor’s requirement, the thesis or “claim” of the essay is highlighted in yellow. (Please forgive the bad formatting; copy/paste doesn’t work very well from LibreOffice to WordPress, and I may or may not get around to cleaning it up.)
The Universal Tongue
By Dane Mutters
(The claim is highlighted on page three.)
‘“…And what absolutely blew me away was I, well, I was afraid they were going to blame me for what happened, but the mother showed me compassion. She understood—somehow she got the—she, well”—Neil was scrabbling uncomfortably for words, but he was determined to forge ahead—“well, I think part of it was that I was crying. What she did was, she thanked me. She hugged me. And I hugged her.”’
—Excerpt from The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (Fadiman 213)
In a heroic breach of cultural barriers, Neil Ernst and Foua Lee, longtime adversaries concerning Lia’s medical treatment, suddenly connected emotionally to such an extent that the Lee family exempted Neil and Peggy from the category of “bad American doctors,” and began to see them for what they always were—(unsuccessful) proponents of Lia’s well-being. Why not before now, or even the first time that Lia was successfully treated for acute status epilepticus? The prolonged agony of dissent among the doctors and family of the patient seems, in retrospect, unnecessary. Although the Lees did not understand the methods of treatment, they should have at least realized that the doctors meant to help Lia, and would thus not lie to them, or knowingly overmedicate her. Likewise, why had it taken the doctors at the Merced Community Medical Clinic so long to start seeing their troubled Hmong patient as more than a severe annoyance, but rather as a sick child?
The ever-present struggle between the doctors and the Hmong family was a manifestation of the power differential between the Hmong and the American doctors. In the minds of the Hmong, to learn the basic principles of American medicine, and to do explicitly anything the doctors told them to do, was a way of yielding to a higher power, and thus partially assimilating into the American status quo—something, the essence of which, the Hmong have resisted for hundreds, even thousands of years, under much more invasive governments and cultures than our own. In this society, however, the Hmong were irreparably immersed. Any animosities that may have existed solely on the basis of having somebody else tell them what to do were heightened due to their inability to escape American law and customs for fear of having to deal with a justice system that they didn’t understand, and thus infused into their relationship with the doctors at MCMC a feeling of having been conquered, and with that, a feeling of deep resentment.
Therefore, how could one expect the Hmong to sympathize with the doctors’ efforts to cure Lia’s illness, even at great expense and personal sacrifice? Under such a pretense of hatred, one would be rather inclined towards a disposition of obstinance. This disposition proved rather difficult to deal with from the doctors’ perspectives, even to the extent of warranting the apprehension of Lia so that she could be placed with a more “compliant” family. From the perspective of the Hmong, who value their children above all else, this appeared to be an act of hostility and a demonstration of power, and thus perpetuated feelings of animosity. With such a powerful cycle in place, how did the Lees eventually come to feel compassion for Neil and Peggy Ernst—the very doctors who had their child taken from them?
When Neil’s nearly statuesque composure dissolved under streams of tears, he demonstrated that he did not possess the heartless objectivism of other American authority figures. By bearing his feelings to Foua Lee, he was able to communicate in the universal human language of love, allowing her to understand that he too felt compassion for Lia in a way similar to that of her own parents. In this manner, when feelings of love are put into plain view, one can cross even the densest cultural barriers and allow each participant to ascend into understanding.
Rooted in every human being from the time of birth is the innate notion of giving and receiving love. Babies love their mothers as their mothers love them. Even Lia Lee, in a near-comatose state, was able to recognize her mother’s touch (Fadiman 211). Love is the means by which we are able to accomplish great things as a civilization; it encompasses the desire to help one’s fellow human beings by being the best one can be; it allows people to reach past first impressions in order to achieve a common goal. Furthermore, love is the platform on which equality stands.
In her essay, “Love as a Practice of Freedom,” Bell Hooks states, “A culture of domination is a culture of anti-love” (Hooks 246). She goes on to focus on the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., saying that he “decided to love.” In that manner, King expressed that in order to live as equals, people must love one another. Otherwise, the sense of animosity which stems from not loving and not being loved will manifest itself in the form of social hierarchies, in which those with wealth and influence do not feel obligated to share their good fortune with those who are less fortunate. Also contained in King’s statement is the premise that love has a way of being reciprocated; otherwise, loving one’s oppressor would serve no purpose.
Indeed, this principle, as demonstrated to be successful during the non-violent movements of both King and Gandhi, is a corner stone of the Christian faith:
“…every man should love his neighbor as himself, that there should be no contention among them.” (Mosiah 23: 15)
However, since in Hmong folk lore (and in their religion) most of the great antagonists are evil spirits, bent on eating people and drinking their blood, many Hmong heroes, such as Shee Yee gained their fame through thinking up cunning ways of killing or otherwise defeating their adversaries, thus perpetuating the characteristically Hmong ethic of resisting coersion from powerful people or beings (Johnson 26). That adds to the above stated predisposition for obstinance that serves to separate the Hmong-Americans from other Americans. These premonitions served to practically vaccinate the first-generation Hmong-Americans from full cultural integration. Additionally, because part of cultural integration involves learning the language, the Hmong tended to be rather “difficult” during negotiations with the MCMC medical staff.
Even though the Hmong were fairly strictly against being colonized, they were able to befriend Lia’s American foster-parents, Dee and Tom Korda, on the grounds that they were taking good care of Lia. Why then, did they not initially feel moved to befriend the doctors at MCMC?
Primarily, this was because they didn’t believe that what the doctors were doing was helping Lia. Hmong parents hold fast to the belief that if a child is sickly, it is because they were not given proper care in their previous life. Therefore, in order to remedy the child’s spiritual afflictions (quag dab peg, literally, “the spirit catches you and you fall down,” is believed to be a matter of losing one’s soul), it was necessary to treat the child with special care, even to the extent of partialism over the other children in the family (Fadiman 20). The doctors at MCMC, however saw Lia’s afflictions as purely a physical matter, and thus did everything in their power to keep her physical body from damaging itself further. This included tying her to her bed, sticking foreign objects down her throat and prodding her with needles in order to systematically extract her bodily fluids. The Lees recognized these actions as things which are likely to scare away her soul by making her unhappy. The Lees responded in the only way they knew how—to cease all things which made Lia unhappy (Fadiman 180).
Such is the purest form of love, the desire to make someone happy. Regardless of whether a person refers to it as “treating the patient,” “calling her soul” or simply “good parenting,” it is that desire which expresses a person’s need to love and be loved. Although the Lees did not understand Lia’s course of medical treatment, they eventually came to realize that the doctors had much the same intentions as them. Such realization came quicker in the case of the Kordas, because the Kordas’ method of giving love was much more similar to their own.
A second form of love is service. Of the countless visits to MCMC that the Lees made over the period of Lia’s childhood, not once were they required to pay for treatment or negotiate with insurance companies to that effect. Neil Ernst once calculated Lia’s cost of medical care at a staggering sum of $250,000, not including the salaries of the medical staff (Fadiman 254). Additionally, both Neil and Peggy could recall countless nights when they had to stumble out of bed and rush over to the clinic in order to insert an IV into one of Lia’s impenetrable veins and negotiate a course of treatment with her obstinate parents. Yet for all of this, they expected nothing. Their primary goal in these valiant efforts was not money or thanks, but rather a sense of satisfaction gained from helping a troubled Hmong girl. In serving the Lees at great cost and personal sacrifice, the doctors at MCMC showed that without knowing the Lees, or even being able to talk to them, they were willing to display unconditional love. Yet that love was not immediately returned.
At the time of service, the Lees did not understand the doctors’ pure intentions, but instead assumed that their willingness to “help” stemmed from their desire to continue medical research, using Lia as a test subject. In that context, it’s no wonder that the Lees felt apprehensive about the treatment, even to the extent of discontinuing it on multiple occasions. They could not, under the circumstances, fathom the idea that in such a money- and power-driven society ruled by the white upper class, somebody would want to help a family of poor Hmong refugees who neither knew the language nor wanted to take part in mainstream American culture. Therefore, it was not until Neil put his love into a language they could understand that they recognized the doctors’ goodwill towards Lia.
Throughout Hmong history, they have been persecuted for their differences and individualism to the extent that those which would have them integrate into their own culture have only caused them to seclude themselves further, out of fear and resentment; thus, in no way could the oppressors have won the confidence of the Hmong. In fact, the greater the power differential and the oppressors’ desire to use it, the more obstinate the Hmong have become in their policies towards that group. At MCMC, however, the pressure to integrate was accompanied by good intentions and selfless service, allowing for the chance that the Hmong patients would see the doctors’ perspective and thereby develop at least a small degree of trust and confidence in that group. However the desire to do good was not enough. The doctors had to put it into a form that the Hmong could understand—the almost parental love that Neil and Peggy felt toward Lia. Once these feelings of love were out in the open, each side was free to cross the cultural barrier and embrace one another as mentors and benefactors of Lia Lee.
Could the same have been accomplished without love? Possibly. A good translator who was affluent enough with Hmong culture may have been able to explain the doctors’ wishes to Foua and Nao Kao, but without Neil’s display of pure emotions, this understanding would have been purely objective, even to the extent that the Lees may have continued to suspect that the doctors were testing new methods of medicine on Lia. In light of this alternative, I stay my claim that only when feelings of love are put into plain view, can people step across cultural barriers and gain a complete understanding of each other’s motives and intentions. One can thus only hope that people are able to step outside of their comfort zones and communicate in a language that everybody can understand, thus breaking down the barriers of hatred, prejudice and cultural misunderstanding, and thereby finding common ground between them on the basic platform that is humanity.
Fadiman, Anne. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. New York: Noonday, 1997.
Hooks, Bell. Outlaw Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.
The Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981.
Johnson, Charles. Dab Neeg Hmoob. St. Paul: Linguistics Dept., Macalester College, 1985.