“When a child first catches adults out — when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not always have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just — his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child’s world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.”
― John Steinbeck, East of Eden
I got lucky with my parents. I remember almost precisely when this happened, or occurred, or however you say, to me. It was my best friend’s parents who so immediately brought down without ceremony the shining godhood of adulthood, which had never really been threatened before in my life. I’d always lived among kind, generous people and consequently I believed adults to be naturally good, and fair, and just, and, because I was an observant green-eyed duckling, I saw that they were varying degrees of right, but always oriented in the right general direction.
Not her parents. They were a pair, those two. Shouting, hateful, repressed, twisted, insulting of any and everyone. Abusive. But I was lucky, as I say, to have parents like mine, who slowed the fall, who stayed the ignominy with their graceful acquiescence, their acknowledgement of insult and their refusal to go out of their way to avoid these people. I have never once heard my parents talk meanly of anyone, or sneeringly.
So this rending of the veil. It was a blatant accusation my friend’s dad made of my dad once, and I ran home the crooked path between our houses and aching, told them what he’d said of them. At this age I would not have told them, of course, because I’m older and one learns how to give up the shared heady righteous indignation for duller and kinder reticence.
But back then I was young and hurt and like a child, my instinct was to offer up my hurt. I remember their clear, steady eyes, pain (that was part of the downfall– gods do not bleed), and then shrugs. They dismissed his words but made no attempt on his character, which was laid bare like a shriveled chicken and which could have been shredded with two sentences. They didn’t exclaim and they probably later discussed it more, but they nodded and I left the room, that, like Stephen Benet wrote, was “a room where Peace and Honor talk like birds.”
I gained a profound respect for their grace, for a slow-blushing bruise on an unturned cheek, for their clear eyes. Steinbeck’s shattered idol had clay & iron feet but I saw this and simultaneously, having clay and iron feet myself, understood that I wouldn’t reach godhood but that I could, with practice, one day achieve that same clear-eyed state of grace. It was attainable, it could be had.