There was a long-forgotten incident in Murray Temple’s life that he suddenly couldn’t stop thinking about. The memory began as a minor nuisance but eventually developed into a source of acute misery. His family doctor had suggested anti-depressants but he refused to take them or see any counselor the doctor recommended.
He had always been very open with his wife but he couldn’t bring himself to tell her anything except in the vaguest terms. A few times, he had felt desperate enough to consider calling his daughter, who was away at university, but he never did. He didn’t want to burden his daughter who was extremely busy, but, as in the case of his wife, it was mainly shame that prevented him from opening up.
The memories that tormented him appeared so embarrassingly trivial to him – bullying he had been subjected to in childhood.
Some older boys humiliated him by making him move out of his seat at a high school football game. Temple – and the friend he was with at the game – were only in elementary school at the time. He never saw those bullies again in his life. Forty-five years later, he couldn’t stop dwelling on their meanness and cowardice. He fantasized about going back in time and calling their bluff. Why hadn’t he considered the consequences those boys would have suffered if they had touched him? He had very violent fantasies in which his father or uncles, or his friend’s older brothers (who were on the field playing), swooped down on those boys to beat them up. Sometimes he imagined himself as a grown man coming to his own rescue. The fantasies became so vivid that they frequently sent his heart racing to the point where he felt like passing out.
One day, he actually had to lie down on the floor of his office to keep from fainting because of those violent thoughts. His secratry rushed to call 911 when she saw him on the floor. He convinced her not to call by saying that he had merely thrown out his back out and needed to lie on the floor to alleviate the pain. She cancelled his appointments for the rest of the day.
Earlier that day, he had sent an email to that friend who had been bullied along with him at the football game. Without beating around the bush, Temple asked him if he remembered the incident. His friend, who had recently given up practicing law to become a school teacher, replied at once. He said he vaguely remembered the incident and then invited Temple and his wife over for dinner. Temple made an excuse not to accept.
As Temple was lying on the floor of his office, he was convinced that the memory of that minor incident at the football game would soon kill him. Then he began to remember numerous other times when he had been bullied as a child – then other, more subtle, incidents in later life when he had been humiliated. His life appeared as a series of humiliating incidents that he had suppressed until that moment. He wondered why people had been so cowardly as to pick on him when he was – for one reason or another – vulnerable. And why had he been so cowardly? Why hadn’t he stood up for himself much more often? Of course he realized that he was, uncontrollably and destructively, distorting his own past. He tried to think about all the nice things that had happened to him in his life – the first time he kissed his wife, their marriage, the birth of their daughter, the first lawsuit he won. He thought of starving and abused children in India. He was perfectly aware of what a very fortunate person he was, but that awareness did absolutely nothing to comfort him.
With considerable difficulty, he managed to calm his thoughts. He slowly rose from the floor and slumped into the chair by his desk for several minutes. He was about to go home when he noticed an email from his old friend.
If you have any kind of midlife crisis thing going on Abdias Jean is the person to talk to. Trust me. No one else is as good.
His old friend put Abdias Jean’s contact information at the end of the email.
Temple had never heard of him but immediately called to make an appointment.
He did not make any attempt to do any research about Abdias Jean. He was not alarmed when he saw the modest house where Abdias Jean worked, nor that the garage that had been converted into a semi open air waiting room. Temple’s fellow patients in the waiting room looked normal enough to him.
When he finally saw Abdias seated at the dining room table where he met patients, Temple asked him where “Dr. Jean” was.
“I’m Abdias Jean, and I’m not a doctor,” replied Abdias.
“But on the phone-” stammered Temple.
“You spoke to my father. He’s Haitian, hence the accent.”
“Yeah, okay but…How old are you?”
Temple just stood there and said nothing.
“Have a seat,” said Abdias.
Temple sat down reluctantly and asked “People pay you? You can’t possibly be licensed.”
“People only pay me if they want to, and only what they can afford and think is fair.”
“And fortunately,” Abdias added with a chuckle, “people don’t need a license to talk to each other. Things haven’t gone that far out of hand.”
Abdias smiled but Temple looked back at him coldly.
“Who recommended me to you?” asked Abdias.
Temple gave him the name of his friend.
Abdias suddenly nodded as if a key truth had been revealed.
“You hung out with him as a boy didn’t you?”
“Yes,” replied Temple.
“Let me guess. Your visit to me is related to some bullying that took place in your childhood.”
“He told you about the football game we went to as kids, about that email I sent him last week?”
“No. I haven’t heard from your friend for about a month. He came to me because he was suffering greatly because of some bullying he had experienced as a child, but it was not at a football game.”
“And you helped him.”
“Well, he recommended me to you of all people, so that speaks volumes.”
Temple looked puzzled but he now felt uninhibited enough to give Abdias a quick synopsis of his problem.
He was quite relieved that Abdias did not burst out laughing or say “that’s it?” after he finished.
“I know it’s a ridiculously minor incident,” said Temple. “People survive horrific experiences and get on with their lives, but I honestly think I’m going to have a stroke because I can’t get these bullies out of my head and these violent thoughts I keep having…”
“If you found those bullies today, do you think they would remember what they did?”
“Of course not,” answered Temple. “I bet they wouldn’t remember anything about that night at all.”
“Bay kou bliye. Pote mak sonje,” said Abdias.
“The one who delivers the blow forgets. The one who bears its mark remembers,” said Abdias. “It’s a Haitian proverb,” he explained.
Temple nodded and after a pause asked Abdias how he had helped his old friend. Perhaps the same technique would work on him.
“I’m sure it would. He needed to forgive you.”
“Forgive me?” Temple asked incredulously.
“Yes, you bullied him mercilessly whenever you with a certain groups of friends you considered cooler than him. You taunted him and even challenged him to a fight when he asked you to stop. He backed down and, many years later, was suddenly tormented by the humiliation.”
At first, everything Abdias told Temple seemed preposterous, but as Abdias supplied more details Temple began to remember.
“He was my friend,” gasped Temple.
“You know how people, especially kids, can get when they are in groups and out to impress.”
They sat quietly for a minute. A few more unflattering memories then came into Temple’s mind.
“It is a lot easier to forgive people when you accept that you are no saint yourself,” said Abdias. “The gentlest people among us should be able to understand the worst villain if they examine their own lives and hearts honestly. But we tend to idealize ourselves in memory. Countries do that as well. That ‘why do they hate us?’ question people asked after 9/11 is a good example. Look where that led. ”
Abdias added that Temple’s friend had concluded – thanks to their meetings – that he had in fact made a lucrative career out of bullying. That was why he gave up law – to try to make a fresh start.
Temple looked very alarmed. He thanked Abdias politely, paid him generously, and never gave those bullies a second thought. And he never contacted Abdias or his old friend ever again.