I have many memories of my mother’s trying to inspire me by her example to be a better person, and when that didn’t work, she usually resorted to very loud yelling and the wooden spoon.
Every so often, we’d have mother-son talks, and she would use the occasion to tell me that my association with another kid in the neighborhood was harmful because he was a “bad example.” Or as she put it, “He brings out the worst in you.”
What an interesting concept. At the time, I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant. How exactly did he do that? Hypnosis? Mind control? Peer pressure? Voodoo?
And what exactly was “the worst” in me? Even if I didn’t hang out with him, wouldn’t the worst in me find some other way to come out? Besides, this kid was a lot of fun.
Only years later when I became a parent did I understand the utter helplessness you feel when your kids hang out with “bad examples,” and I knew what Mom meant.
As I got older, I realized many other things can bring out the worst in you, such as the Internet, television and a work environment where people cheat and backbite. Yes, the worst is always looking for an opportunity to come out.
Some people bring out the worst in me and some places bring out the worst in me, even when I don’t want it to come out. Strangely, the people who bring out the worst aren’t necessarily troublemakers or felons hanging out on street corners peddling drugs. Many of them are successful, persuasive, likable ... and insidious.
At work, for example, when I get together with my colleagues around the proverbial water cooler, we have a field day gossiping about the less-than-perfect employees, and on those occasions, a little voice in my head starts to whisper, “Walk away from this conversation.” (Is that my mother talking?) But I can’t or won’t or don’t walk away.
The worst is coming out in me, and when I get back to my desk, I have this nagging feeling I have to go to confession. Bad-mouthing people, to use a term I learned from my mother, is an addiction that seems socially acceptable when other people join in the fun, so it’s easy to delude yourself that you’re not really doing anything wrong.
I want to be a better person, but my imperfections keep taking control. On a crowded train recently, a woman with a lot of nervous energy, who obviously didn’t understand commuter etiquette, sat beside me and kept hitting my body with her elbow, and I wanted to snarl, “Lady, stay on your side of the seat!”
Even though we were in the quiet car, she whipped out her cell phone and said in an extremely loud and annoying voice that violated the explicit “no talking” rules, “Tommy! Tommy, where are you? Can you hear me?”
By then, my blood pressure reached perilously high levels, and I wanted to give her an elbow and snatch the phone from her. Swear words were cascading through my brain. Yes, the worst was coming out.
“Tommy, please try to visit your sister tonight,” she continued in a loud voice that everyone could hear. “She’s in intensive care after the accident and we’re worried. Please, Tommy, try to forgive her.”
Right then, I felt such overwhelming remorse, I said in disgrace, “Jesus, I’m no good and I will always be no good. Forgive me.” I closed my book, turned off my iPad and spent the rest of the train ride praying for the woman, for Tommy and for his sister.
Sometimes the worst in me comes out when I’m with worldly people who find meaning in life by bar-hopping, bragging about their sexual exploits and gloating over their underhanded and shady deals. On those occasions, Mom comes to mind, and I realize I should run away as fast as my legs can carry me.
Another piece of advice she gave me is that when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas, and I have a lot of flea bites to prove her theory.
These were once known as “near occasions of sin” – people, places and situations that drag us down when we should be striving to go up. These occasions bring out the worst in us.
When we struggle to get up, we often keep sinking and have to yell, “Lord, save me!,” just as Peter did when he was slipping beneath the dark waves that stormy night on the sea.
The best defense is avoiding bad situations and bad people because when you’re in their company, you usually find yourself saying and doing things you later regret. Yes, as Mom said, “They bring out the worst in you.”
J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.