There’s a particular scene from The Grapes of Wrath that has stayed with me longer than I could have expected it to (although I’m also not surprised that it has). I can remember parts of the novel if I stop and think about it, but this one part pops into my mind of its own accord. [Warning: spoilers in the next paragraph.]
I’m actually not even sure that I remember the details surrounding it correctly, but I’m sure it comes later in the story, when the Joad family are living in one of those metal freight containers (AKA “boxcars” – I had to Google that one), with some other families around them. Tom Joad had just killed a man because that man killed Jim Casey, so the family had moved from their previous location, and Tom was trying to lay low.
Not long after they settle into this boxcar, Winfield comes up to Ma Joad and tells her that Ruthie has told some other kids in the camp about Tom. She was allegedly having a fight with another girl, and threatened to get her brother involved because he’s killed a man before (twice, in fact).
Winfield expects Ma Joad to severely reprimand Ruthie for putting Tom in danger (he is on parole, after all, and shouldn’t even be there, across the state border), but Ma Joad doesn’t punish her. Ruthie returns to the boxcar crying and very upset. Perhaps it is because Ma sees that Ruthie is repentant, or perhaps it is because she is more worried about the risk to Tom, but instead of lecturing Ruthie, she comforts her.
If I’m remembering this correctly, Winfield then indignantly asks why Ma isn’t angry at Ruthie, when that seems to him to be the logical reaction. After all, they had been explicitly told not to tell anyone about Tom. (And he also wanted to get some revenge on her for snitching on him previously.)
But Ma Joad, composed as ever, explains that Ruthie is already so upset, it wouldn’t help anything or anyone to punish her. And it is this scene that pops into my mind now and then – this gentle example of kindness and compassion.
And when I recall this scene, I also think of a TED Talk I watched some time ago (unfortunately I don’t remember who the speaker was, or what their talk was called) about being kind to ourselves. The main message was that we’re not always very good at looking after ourselves emotionally/psychologically.
To illustrate her point, the speaker gave the example of a physical injury: If you got a cut on your arm, you take measures to ensure it heals. You’d get stitches if you need them, and bandage your arm; you wouldn’t take a knife and try to make the wound deeper. Yet, when we experience emotional injury – perhaps sadness, shame, regret – there is a tendency to grab this proverbial knife, dig it in, and turn it.
Sounds counterintuitive, but people do it without realising in the form of over-thinking, over-analysing, taking blame, and picking faults.
Sometimes I think I was raised to be a perfectionist – if not by family, then by schools and peers and media and society. I still remember the (misplaced?) pride I felt when a primary school teacher complimented me on being a perfectionist, like this was a wholly good thing to be.
I’m guilty sometimes of turning the knife. I think that’s why Ma Joad’s actions have stayed with me more than any other part of that book.
And, you know, maybe the guy who cut you off without indicating is a bad driver, or the person who bumped you in the street without apologising is a jerk, or the so-called friend who doesn’t reply to your messages is not much of a friend at all – but maybe it also doesn’t benefit or help anyone to throw metaphorical daggers at them.
This scene from The Grapes of Wrath also sometimes makes me think of Jess Glynne’s song “Don’t be so hard on yourself”. In particular, I think of these two lines:
But hearts break, and hell’s a place that everyone knows,
So don’t be so hard on yourself, no