The More Loving One
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a W.H. Auden poem. One of the lines in it goes: “If equal affection cannot be/ Let the more loving one be me.” I’m trying, you guys. I’m trying and it’s working. Not every time. Not all the time. But sometimes.
My toddler daughter is crying. She wants purple ice cream at the big turtle restaurant. I have no idea what any of this means or how to provide it for her. All attempts to substitute, distract, and pacify have been summarily rejected in favor of more tears. Her little body is heaving and she is exhausted, pounding on the floor between my feet as I stand at the kitchen counter. I am in the middle of painstakingly cutting slices of red pear into tiny elephants for her lunch the next day, a lunch she will doubtlessly reject but I feel like I have to make, to show my outrageous love for her, to show that in spite of my long hours and extra work, I am still domestic, still a woman by some outdated and ridiculous expectation of myself I didn’t realize I held onto until recently. I am inadequate, I am stupid and lame. I don’t understand her or what she wants.
I want to grit my teeth and yell at her. She’s spoiled. She needs to learn that she can’t have everything she wants. I’m so tired. She squirms under my grasp as I pick her up and wipe her eyes, talking softly as I can about how sad I can tell she is, how it is upsetting sometimes not to get what we want. To my surprise, she is settling into my shoulder and I realize, in this one shining moment of parental triumph, she is patting my arm gently as I do that ancient mother-elephant walk through the messy kitchen. If equal affection cannot be/ let the more loving one be me, I repeat into her soft hair.
I’m sitting in a jail cell and it’s freezing. I’ve been in here for almost a half hour by the time the guard brings my client into the other side for me to talk to. Dressed in his oranges, a color that suits no one, he looks older than I remembered, his cheeks slack, his skin dry. I’m here to tell him the things I have done, to show him these stacks of paper that don’t mean much and have amounted to less, and to tell him that our efforts have failed, I can’t move the DA, and he’s almost certainly going to spend the rest of his life in prison.
He’s angry, of course. It’s my fault, it’s everyone’s fault but his. The gravity of this he can’t accept as a consequence of the things he’s done: the numerous prior offenses he was forced to plead to, the drug addictions he was unable to recover from, the unreasonable prosecutor who won’t just let this go. I am incapable, I am inadequate, I am stupid and lame, and I don’t understand what this means, he seethes at me through gritted teeth into the ancient chipping phone receiver we speak through.
I look at him with as much compassion as I can muster. You drew a gun on a stranger and his small child and robbed them for $20 in the middle of daylight. They identified you. There are other witnesses who identified you, too. Your prior offenses are as well-documented as I’ve seen. Sexual assaults of children. Other violent offenses dating back twenty years. But he knows this and I don’t repeat it.
I draw my breath and nod my head. I’m so sorry. I don’t understand what your life is like, I don’t understand how this must feel. But I don’t know what you want me to do. I’m sorry I have to bring you this news, I’m this person you barely know and here I am telling you something that changes your life so greatly. I put my hand up to the glass between us and instinctively, almost, his gaze shifts downward and he raises his hand up to meet mine and there’s a second of phantom pressure through the glass, as if I can feel the oyster shell callouses on his palm.
If equal affection cannot be/ let the more loving one be me.
I don’t mean to be blasé. Compassion fatigue is real and nothing can substitute for that terrible and modern concept of “self-care” that I hear so much about and secretly both disdain and pine for. Of course it doesn’t always work, but I feel like most of the times it doesn’t, it’s partially because of my failure, my pride and ego making me feel like I don’t want to show affection to someone who so blatantly doesn’t return the feeling. And part of it, of course, is that sometimes it’s not enough. Sometimes no matter how softly I coo to her, my daughter doesn’t want to be soothed, she needs to rage. And sometimes my clients don’t want to like me, no matter how many times I try to show them that I care about their case and I’m trying my best. They need me to be the reason for their troubles, and sometimes I have to remember that sometimes that’s my role- to be that reason, even if it’s not objectively true.
But that’s the beauty of this verse, I don’t have control over who loves or likes me, but I have control over how much I love, over my effusive, ecstatic, radical compassion. So I repeat it to myself as a mantra: this secular, silent prayer to Saints Gideon and Brady, guardians and protectors of all beleaguered public defenders. I call on it when I think I am at a loss for strength, when my well of compassion is dry, and somehow there’s always a little more down there, flooding into this empty bucket of my heart, when I hear Auden’s words.
Let the more loving one be me.