I've Had A Hard Life

Mort Morford


© Copyright 2023 by Mort Morford

Photo by Luna Lovegood at Pexels.
 Photo by Luna Lovegood at Pexels.

There’s a simple principle about understanding human beings; when someone tells you about themselves – believe them.

We might make the assumption that an older person might have had a “harder life” than a younger person.

And when someone tells me that they’ve had a “hard life”, I have learned to believe them – even when their age or appearance might suggest a very different story.

A few years ago I was teaching an evening class. It was an extended GED preparation class with an emphasis on the basic academic skills of reading comprehension, writing and basic math.

Each session had a bathroom or snack break every hour or so.

I noticed one young woman, certainly not much over 20, who didn’t take breaks, or even chat, with the other young people in the class.

She was a year or two older than most of the other students, but that is not unusual in a community college.

Most of the time she stayed in the classroom during the breaks.

One time I asked her why.

Her answer was very simple – “I’ve had a hard life“.

Given her age, and a high degree of apparent innocence, even though she did look a bit more weary than most, I was not entirely convinced.

Since we were the only ones in the classroom, she filled in a few details.

She asked me if I remembered a triple murder a few years earlier.

It was only a few miles from my home, at an intersection I drive by frequently - and the victims were young people, all in their 20s – if that.

I hadn’t followed the story closely, but I heard that it was some kind of drug deal that didn’t work out.

This young woman, a teen at the time, was the driver of the getaway car.

She didn’t know, she told me, that revenge of the murderous kind was on the agenda that evening.

She drove, and, as she described it, she parked in front of the house, her companions ran out of the car, caused a commotion in the house and ran back to her car.

In a panic, she took off and heard the story the next day in the local news.

The police quickly found her and her friends.

They were arrested and convicted.

She served a couple years in youth prison. Her companions, the actual murderers, served many more. And were still incarcerated.

And then she was released, on a prison education program, alongside her approximate age peers.

I don’t know whether any of her classmates knew her story, but she didn’t want to share it.

But on the fringes of a small town, it’s likely that the other students, and a few others, probably did know.

But maybe it didn’t matter. She inhabited a world that they, presumably, would never know or even begin to understand.

Another general guideline about people is that we are an average of the five people we spend the most time with.

We absorb, without thinking about it, their values, attitudes and beliefs. We tend to share, echo and accelerate their behavior, language, taste in music, activities and even their fashion choices.

We tend to eat what they eat, go where they go and appreciate or disdain whatever they appreciate or disdain.

From football to shoes, to a drug of choice, we tend to reflect the preferences and taboos of those around us.

This woman, as a teenager, “fell in with the wrong crowd”.

They had welcomed her and essentially “cultured” her to become one of them.

Most young people, even a lot of not-so-young people, want more than anything “to belong”.

We find ourselves joining clubs, scout troops, fraternities, churches and political parties, to name a few, to find people like ourselves.

Most of us do it almost accidently. We join groups that our friends or family members are part of. Many of us just drift, taking the path of least resistance into the company of others.

Very few of us are deliberate.

Most of us spend more time analyzing the pros and cons of buying an appliance than we do deciding which group to identify with. Or who to marry.

An appliance may last a few years, but a pivotal friendship, or marriage may last for years. Or longer. And recovering from a bad relationship, or even a disastrous friendship could take much longer.

And like this woman, the choices we make as young adults, tilts, limits, and sometimes even forecloses our choices later.

For a short time, I worked at my local rescue mission. While there I met an articulate, charming man perhaps in his late 30s or early 40s.

He was one of those people with many talents, skills and interests.

He did not fit the profile of the usual resident of a rescue mission.

He told me why he was there.

He had a couple children and owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in child support.

Instead of paying it, either incrementally or in its entirety, he skipped out on it.

Every paycheck or bank account would be garnished to make those payments, so he avoided all standard employment or banking. He worked purely “under the table” at odd jobs either for cash or, if necessary, used one of the check cashing services.

In other words, he “got by”. But he couldn’t get anywhere in terms of a career or savings, or retirement, or equity in a home. He couldn’t rent a place in his own name and certainly could not buy a home or start a business. He couldn’t apply for a loan, go through a credit check or officially work anywhere.

He never had an official income, never paid income tax, didn’t use credit cards, and couldn’t get a passport.

In many ways, officially speaking, he was invisible. He brought a whole new meaning to the term “off the grid”.

The more he told me how he “got by”, the more I realized that he didn’t. And couldn’t.

I haven’t seen him since then, but I can’t help wondering how it worked out for him.

He had created his own destiny.

Perhaps, to a large degree, we all do.

Some of us pay a higher price. Some, like this man and young woman, make choices as young people that frame and define our lives for decades to come.

The young woman probably had no idea what her friends would do that day, but she probably did know that it would not be good.

The man probably knew that skipping out on child support would cost him – but he probably had no idea how much. Or for how long.

Every one of our choices have consequences. We go this way instead of that way. We ignore or listen to advice or promises. We find ourselves in the wake of our own decisions and choices.

We create shadows and ripples, friendships, work histories, memories, legacies and, for some, prison records or lasting regrets, and of course, some of us bring children into the world, and they too look at us and, to some degree, intentionally or not, find themselves responding to, or trying to make sense of the world we have created for them.

And, no matter what course we take, most of us only realize the full cost when it is far too late.

Sometimes, when I see children laughing and leaping in the easy, natural and spontaneous grip of delight, exuberating, belonging, even communion and celebration of play, gathering and the ecstasy of shared purpose and activity, I wonder how long it will be until each one, in their own trajectory, takes on, often by their own choices, the burdens, obligations and oceans of regret that, like some near Biblical flood or unstoppable force, chokes the joy out of almost every one of us.

And I see why classical paintings portray angels as children. It’s as if this state of exuberance and innocence, trust and celebration is our natural and intended state. I see children dance and sing as if they could, and just might, dance and sing forever.

We were made for this. The guilt and shame that so many of us carry – that so many of us have so carefully, even meticulously, constructed around our selves does its inevitable duty and, as scriptures put, the burdens and cares of this world, accomplish their grim ends and accumulate like an ever-darkening stain on our spirits and leave far too many of us as hollowed out shells of the children – even angels – we were meant to be.

Could any of us even begin to imagine a life, terrestrial or eternal, without criticism or judgment, without shame or anxiety about the past or fear and worry about the future, but like eternal children, bask in the forever moment of incandescent exaltation of existence?

If Heaven is anything, it is the restoration of the sheer and unbridled sense of delight, freedom, innocence, inspiration, blessed, even sacred vulnerability and adventure that once came so naturally and easily to each one of us.

Behind each anxious, weary and worried face lies a child longing to get out and play.

Contact Mort
(Unless you type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Mort's story list and biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher