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State of Grace


She carries a pearl In perfect condition What once was hers What once was friction What left a mark No longer stains Because grace makes beauty Out of ugly things —“Grace,” U2

I have two favorite bumper stickers that, were I a bumper-sticker kind of girl, I would plaster onto my fender.

The first one is Mean People Suck.

And who, at present (and leaving aside members of the current administration), can top the sheer meanness of the Washington, D.C., administrative-law judge, Roy Pearson? He’s the pants-less jackass who just has brought a $54 million lawsuit against his mom-and-pop dry cleaners.

You probably know the story: Custom Cleaners, a family-run business, tailored four pairs of pants for Judge Pearson, yet they only returned three of them. When he pointed out their error, they gave him a fourth pair—but these had cuffs! Judge Pearson insisted that he had not worn cuffs since the 1970’s. These were imposter pants and not his own at all!

Legally, the suit is not about the pants—if you follow what I’m saying. It’s about a sign posted in the dry cleaners that said “Satisfaction Guaranteed.” Pearson’s legal contention is that ‘Satisfaction’ means satisfaction and ‘Guaranteed’ means guaranteed. Pearson thinks he was owed both and got neither.

Never mind that at one point the Korean family who runs the dry cleaners and speaks little English, offered him $10,000 in damages, which he refused. No, for the protection of all consumers and for the sake of suits everywhere, it is more important that he ruin the lives of small- business owners trying to support their family by working day after day among chemical toxins so that people of means—or in Judge Pearson’s case, mean people—can have clean pants.

There is a back-story, of course. Apparently Judge Pearson got taken to the cleaners in a recent divorce and now he’s out for a little quid pro quo. But really, no matter how outlandish the suit is and how unreasonable the apparent reason for it, Judge Pearson exemplifies the bumper sticker wisdom that Mean People Suck.

They do, of course. But what I want to know is, what makes people mean? What gives some people a sense of entitlement to abuse others? And I don’t even mean physical abuse. That’s in another horrible class of its own. I want to know what is satisfying about randomly and/or unnecessarily causing others harm?

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Because my other favorite bumper sticker says Grace Happens.

Just not often enough.

A few years ago my friend Karen and I were meeting for breakfast. As I was walking down the street to the restaurant, I saw a woman striding along dragging her child by her arm. And she was lighting into the girl, belittling her, accusing her, calling her names. The child was crying and running to keep up with her hell-on-heels mother.

I felt such a rush of rage and sorrow that by the time I got to the table I was in tears. I blubbered out my story to Karen and she nodded, teary-eyed, too. Because just that morning she had heard her downstairs neighbor’s son sobbing once again as his mother yelled at him once again. It was all his fault, the mother said. He was sick. His medicine cost too much money. And now there wouldn’t be any Christmas presents for anybody. Not for anybody.

Meanness. It’s wilier than cruelty, a choice, not a compulsion.

And grace is the other choice.

Which is why this tender story always brings me to tears—as reliably as meanness does:

My daughter, Linnea, and I were on vacation last year strolling along by this big carousel in a town square. Children were laughing and running across the uneven paving stones of the square. All of a sudden a little girl tripped and fell, scraping her knee and starting to cry. But even before she could exhale into the first sob, her mother sank down beside her and folded her into her arms. The little girl sobbed into her mother’s shoulder, her mother murmuring comfort, rubbing her back. It was the tender dance of grace. And it was a dance I remembered so well: The child hurts and the enfolding arms heal. It is as natural as breathing, as innate as touch.

I looked at Linnea—now taller than I am. She looked at me, then enfolded me with her long arm.

“They reminded me of you and me when I was little,” she said, “And how good it was to know that kind of love and tenderness when I was her age. But I just don’t understand how the world can be so full of all of the horrible things it is when it can also be full of such tenderness.”

I don’t understand why, either. I never will. All I know is that this is a world full of both the meanest of people and the most tender of love.

Linnea and I walked back to our hotel, hand-in-hand, as we had done when she was a child, when she had been the age children are when they find themselves either under the thumbs of mean people or tenderly waltzing in grace.

—Jo Page

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