Recently I have been looking frantically through all my household files, bookcases, and other paper storage spots to find a copy of a poem I wrote 20 years ago. So far, I haven't had any luck, although in the course of searching, I have weeded out a lot of paper clutter, and found a number of other poems, essays, and letters to the editor I had written.
I also found something else, something I had forgotten I had - a letter that my brother wrote me 22 years ago. I knew what it was as soon as I saw it, and knew also that I should take it over to the shredder, only a few feet away, and shred it without re-reading it. I knew that, but of course, I re-read it anyway.
The letter was a complaint, one of those letters intended to be more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger which are of course always more-in-anger-than-in-sorrow. It was the kind of letter you write, put away till the next morning, read again, and rip up before writing, "You know, you really pissed me off and you owe me an apology."
My brother is like me in that we both tend toward the cold and cutting rather than the hot angry style. I suspect that he did not hear what he wrote in his mind the way I did in mine when I read it, but let's just say that in re-reading it I was surprised the paint hadn't blistered off the walls around the bookcase years ago. Your family always knows how to hit you where it hurts.
The substance of his complaint was that I had treated him badly at our niece's wedding a few months before, and had made a recent comment on the phone of a similar type. As best I could piece together from what he said, he was unhappy that I had told his children stories about him from our childhood, like the time he rolled peas from his lunch down the aisle of an airplane; he was mad that I said it was funny that my son was so much like his uncle since they hardly ever saw each other; and he was furious that I said I didn't know how his wife put up with him. To me, only the last of these seemed like something to complain about, but I can also see where hearing that might have disposed him to take anything else I said in the worst possible way.
So I could understand why he was mad, and recognized that even though I hadn't set out to be hurtful, I had acted like a jerk, and 22 years ago, when I received the letter, I sent him a letter of apology, after first writing a few paint-blistering drafts of my own which I then tore up into little pieces. We've been cordial ever since, although we aren't close.
Re-reading it 22 years later, however, was a different experience. My remorse has been tempered by the passage of a couple of decades and my hurt at his words is fresh again. I had remembered just enough to know that re-reading it was going to be a bad idea, but not enough to know that re-reading it was going to be a really bad idea. Telling the cop who pulled you over where he could stick his speeding ticket bad. Telling your mother-in-law what you really think of her birthday gift bad. Finding the busiest street corner in town and crossing against the light bad.
My brother chose not just to explain what he found so obnoxious about my behavior, but what he found obnoxious about me in general. Furthermore he implied that everyone else in our family, close and extended, felt the same way about me. He wrote as if he believed I had been trying to pick a fight, and that I had mistaken his patience for weakness, instead of my mistaking his not complaining about anything for his not having a complaint. But what hurt and puzzled the most was a gratuitous attack on my intelligence. "Someday maybe you will learn that intelligence is not the same as wisdom."
My brothers and I have the great fortune to be smarter than the average. I am not any smarter than either of them, and none of us are actually geniuses. The only difference I can think of is that they, being boys, were allowed to be smart in peace, whereas I, being a girl, was viewed as as being a problem child for getting straight A's, and it became something of a family project, or at least hobby, to convince me to play dumb. That was about as effective as convincing a giraffe to pretend to be short, and the subject of intelligence became a hot button one, with my brother convinced that I think I'm smarter than everyone else, especially him. That apparently was an issue for him even into our 40's, which is how old we were when the letter was written, even though we had stopped getting report cards 20 years before. How did that happen?
If I had either wisdom or intelligence, I might be able to figure that out. I didn't even have the brains not to read the letter, despite the promptings of my better judgement, so I doubt I am going to find an answer any time soon. The best I could do was belatedly put the letter in the shredder and remind myself that next time my better judgement says, “Don’t do that”, I should don’t do that.
Maybe that is wisdom, after all.