Never too old
I believe that most people have a moral compass. Priests have gods. Cops have laws. Protesters have passions. I have my parents.
When my sister and I were born, our mother and father became our North, South, East and West. For three and a half years the four of us formed our own little world; each day our parents taught us something small or big, and in this way, we learned the difference between right and wrong. When my younger brother was born, we were encouraged to include him. Again and again we learned that it was “wrong” to hit your brother. Or push him. After about a decade, that lesson finally stuck.
My parents have always believed in the power of words, hoping beyond hope that their three children are listening. For years they have implemented the “do as we say, not as we do” speech. When my father orders another Heineken at dinner, my mother jokes, “Don’t drink like Daddy.” When my mother drives us home, my father rolls his eyes and says, “Don’t drive like your mother.”
Words alone have not been the guiding instructional tools of my life, I also watch my parents’ actions and take my cues from what I observe. I see my father curl up with my cats and dogs — all six of them — even after grumpily denouncing the constant flurry of paws under his feet. He could complain and argue and throw Homer, Henry, Bo, Buster, Morris, and Sammy to the street. Instead he embraces them; he shows me that sometimes it’s okay to admit that something’s good, even when you’re inclined to believe that it’s just expensive, messy and a whole lot of work.
I walk into a room and start talking to my mother; she stops me, holds my elbows, and pulls me in for a hug. She’s been doing this for years, and when I’m home from school she does it at least once a day. I watch her embrace my sister, and my brother who towers over her, his long arms patting her shoulders as he laughs. We all pretend that these moments are silly. But we all know that these hugs are an innate response to us, her three children, her most beloved creations.
In youth, I think that most of our moral compasses, no matter their origin, steer us all in the same general direction. It’s when we grow older that the grey areas appear. If I know that something is wrong but still choose to do it, does that make me immoral? Independent? What happens when I begin to think things that my parents never thought — can I defy their years of life lessons?
I argue with my parents all the time. I have my mother’s stubborn self-righteousness, so when she tells me that I’m doing something wrong, I have to convince her that I am right. I hold my father’s steadfast belief that some things in life really are as simple as black and white, right and wrong. Unfortunately, we often diverge on what these “simple” truths may be.
Of course I defy my parents — resist them, ignore them. But at the end of the day, my moral compass remains in place, reminding me that my parents love and protect me with a ferocity I only hope to one day show my own children. They have taught me that there’s so much more to life than being right, than winning, than stepping over other people so that your “rightness” can shine brighter than the rest.
Four years ago my parents sent me to college. They unloaded boxes in my dorm room, put some cash in my hand, hugged me and drove away. In four years I have packed and unpacked again and again, put cash in my own hand, learned how to hug new people — and myself. I have a lot of stories from these past four years, which lets me know that I messed up — a lot. From two hours away my moral compass did the best it could, sending care packages and emails and, if absolutely necessary, driving to visit me.
For so long I’ve wanted to be self-sustaining and independent, proving to my parents that they did all right, that I turned out just fine. Again and again I trip and fall and I have to bite my lip, take three deep breaths and ask for their help. During winter break I sat at my computer two days before Christmas, wondering what gift I could give my parents. I had no money. So, I gave them words. I wrote a letter; in it I detailed my seven semesters in college. I wanted to show them what their money paid for. I wanted to say thank you.
I’m 21 years old, and I’m flawed, and I’m afraid, but I’m also sometimes brave, and sometimes right, and sometimes, I hope, the person my parents have always wanted me to be. It’s taken time and scars and healing, but my moral compass has shown me the way to what is “good,” to what is important. I don’t know many things for certain, but I am certain that with this in mind, I will never be lost.
Connelly’s column runs biweekly Wednesdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.