Lessons from “The Scarlet Ibis”

This week in class, we are reading “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst. If you have never read the story, it is similar to the movie, Simon Birch. Told from the brother’s perspective, it is about his relationship with his little brother, Doodle. Doodle, born disfigured, was told he would never walk and never amount to much. The brother, tired of dragging his little brother around with him, decides to teach Doodle to walk (And, I will stop there so I don’t ruin the rest of the story about you).

One of the messages of the story is that, no matter how insignificant a person may seem, they can always teach us something about ourselves and about life. The brother selfishly teaches Doodle to walk, not because he wants Doodle to be mobile, but because he does want to have the burden of carting Doodle around any longer. As the narrator looks back on his experiences with Doodle, he realizes that Doodle was teaching him about brotherhood and selflessness the entire time; no matter how hard the narrator pushes Doodle, Doodle always tries to keep up because he loves and idolizes his brother–a completely selfless reason. And, as the narrator looks back on this, he begins to feel regretful and guilty that he never saw Doodle for what he was.

I have been thinking lately about how our experiences shape and mold us into the people we are–we are all walking quilts of things we have suffered, things we have seen, things we have done. My quilt would probably be comprised with images of winning state championships, laying in the dew-dripped summer grass, indulging in deep life conversations with friends, traveling to Europe and falling asleep at every bus station, tourist attraction, restaurant, etc. It would be comprised with images of hugging my sister when her heart was broke, dropping a loved one off at rehab as they begged and pleaded to take them home, watching my brother struggle as he grows up. My quilt would include memories of my childhood–playing ‘Home Alone’ in my Opa’s barn–of my proudest accomplishments–graduating college with three majors–of the blood, sweat, and tears I have put into the life I have made.

And, my quilt would include all of the people who have come into my life and left an impression. It would include my family, such as my sister (who I can now read her mind and channel her tail bone injuries), the friends I have lost and maintained, the room mates that I learned to live with, the boys I have dated and chosen not to date. I believe we can learn something from everyone we encounter, whether it be about a profession or hobby we are unfamiliar with, whether it be through a relationship and things to and not to do, or whether it through a bad or awkward experience we have that we hope to never have again (for me, that might be encountering a surprise fish in the freezer…)

I believe our experiences make up who we are as people. Through experiences, we build schemas and conditioned responses. With one of my more serious boyfriends, he would just “forget” to call me and it would sometimes turn out that he was hanging out or doing things he should not have been. So, anytime someone doesn’t call me when they say they will, I start reverting back to that mind frame I am conditioned to: something must be wrong. I have to remind myself that, even though I have those schemas and responses built, not every situation is the same.

The older I get, the more I realize how corrupt people are, because, the older we get, the more corrupt experiences we are exposed to. I often hear, “Well, I am 33 and not married yet because I have just been screwed over by so many girls”. I think the important thing is to remember when we meet other people is they are composed of completely different experiences than we are and might be conditioned to certain responses. For example, one of my friends was telling me about how her last boyfriend would often start yelling at her when she would bring up a conflict. Since she is conditioned to that, when she starts talking to another guy, she expects the same response. For the new guy, I think it is important for him to recognize that she might have this pattern, but also reassure her that he is a completely different guy. The fact of the matter is, people change us. Being in relationships is kind of a cool process, because you take two completely separate people and embark upon the task of molding and morphing together. You create inside jokes, dedicate songs, focus on special conversation topics. And, at the end of it, you are a different person than you started.

The fact of the matter is, people change us. I believe that everyone can teach us something about ourselves. For example, my sister is one of the most selfless people I have ever met in my life. She makes my lunch, cooks me dinner, cleans the house, does my laundry secretly–not because she wants recognition, but because she wants to do something nice for other people and give back. I try to embody those qualities in my own life. Or, our school recently held a Project UNIFY/Special Olympics basketball game. To see the joy on those kids’ faces when they scored a basketball and to watch the student body cheer on each player is truly humbling (I won’t lie, definitely shed some tears). Or, anytime I am privileged enough to be invited into someone’s family time, I always take a step back to observe their relationships and interactions with each other. I recently spent some time with a family that included two sisters and one brother. It occurred to me that is probably the worst possible scenario ever for the brother. Since girls tend to be very catty and jealous, I could see how a girl, an intruder, would feel threatened by the two sisters, two females who share some kind of bond with the brother that the girl will never be privy. Each of these interactions allows me to learn something new and grow towards understanding “the meaning of life”.

I think it is important to recognize that we aren’t all perfect, we all come from different tapestries, no one knows all the answers, and that we are all trying to figure out our way through life.

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