Finding Wisdom and Forgiveness in Foolish Choices
by Maggie Lynch
March 29, 2022
This week we are talking about “foolish” things that characters (or authors) do. Of course, as with any judgment of behavior or decisions, “foolish” is in the eye of the beholder.
The dictionary defines foolish as: (of a person or action) lacking good sense or judgment; unwise.
I think there is no doubt that every one of us has done something unwise. But it is those choices that often offer life lessons. In addition to portraying story characters realistically, that life lesson is often why authors have characters also making foolish choices in our stories. We need to provide a problem or a need that causes our character to make an unwise choice, so they can learn something important. It’s no fun to read a book where the characters are all perfect, never making mistakes and never encountering problems. Just as we learn from foolish choices, so do our characters.
I think it is far too easy to simplify choices as good or bad, evil or angelic. The reality is that most choices aren’t all good or all bad. They are much more nuanced. Every choice—even those perceived to be good—have the potential for bad outcomes. Every choice has the potential to impact not only the person making the choice but others around them. For me, and the characters I create in my stories, it is more what we learn from the choices we make that is important. What we learn can help us to become a better person if we gain some wisdom about the impacts.
My First Memory of a Foolish Choice I Made
As a young girl I was what most people would call a “goody-two-shoes.” That meant I did whatever my parents asked of me. I rarely questioned their wisdom. In fact, I rarely questioned adults at all. The few times I did, I didn’t fight them. In general, I didn’t like confrontation. I was a peacemaker.
I was the oldest of, then, six children; though it would become nine children by the time I graduated high school. I was always cognizant of having to be a good role model to my younger siblings. That role is what separated me from my sisters and brothers and what made me special. But even with that belief, I didn’t always cherish that role and its responsibilities.
When I was in fourth grade, a lot of difficult things happened in my family during a six-month period. A three-year-old cousin died. A few months later, my five-year old brother died. His twin was placed in a state hospital because of extreme mental and self-hurting behaviors (primarily head banging) that my parents could no longer control or deal with. And President Kennedy was killed. It was as if the entire nation shared in our personal grief.
I’m not using this as an excuse but to say that there was a lot for a ten-year-old to absorb on her own—a lot of grief I probably didn’t even know I had. What I did know is that I felt this oppressiveness all around me. I think when life seems to be out of control is the time we all—whether children or adults—are most likely to do foolish things, to make choices out of unexamined desperation rather than thinking them through.
My friend, Isabel, literally lived on “the other side of the tracks.” Our home was near railroad tracks, in fact we could see and hear the train only a block away from us and often ran up to watch it go by. Our neighborhood was the less affluent neighborhood. My parents never used the word “poor” because they wanted us to believe everything was normal. But we knew the truth on some level, even though it was never spoken. Church members gave their hand-me-down clothes to us. When my brother died they gave us a money tree to help pay for expenses.
I’d met Isabel at church the year before. They had just moved into our school district. She was in my fourth grade classroom. She lived what seemed like far away—further than I was allowed to walk on my own. She had invited me to come home after school several times, but my parents had said no. They saw it as an imposition on Isabel’s mother. My mother didn’t drive and she could not come pick me up herself. My father didn’t get home until close to dinner, and sometimes later. My mother would never consider asking Isabel’s mom to bring me home nor to ask for help from an aunt or my grandmother. In my mind, that thinking seemed very unfair and unreasoned as I knew Isabel’s mom was happy to drive me home.
From Isabel’s descriptions, I knew her house was very different from mine. First, she was an only child. She had a room to herself (I shared a room with two sisters). She even had her own TV. We didn’t even have a TV until the summer before I started fourth grade. When we did get one it was the only one in the house—a hand-me-down from an uncle who repaired TVs. I was curious about what a house might be like that had two TVs. The ability to have her own room also intrigued me. I didn’t mind sleeping with my sisters, but having one’s own room must be the same as being a princess. Most of all, it seemed that her life was always happy and I wanted that life.
Where I walked five blocks to school, my friend had to take the bus from her neighborhood. In those days you had to live two miles or more from school to be able to take the bus. That meant I had to get my mother or father to write a note saying they gave their permission for me to take the bus to this person’s house. I didn’t bother to ask, I already knew the answer. So, I chose to write the note myself and sign my mother’s name.
The problem with foolish acts, at least for me, is that not being someone who had honed my skills for disobeying my parents nor thought through the layer of lies I might have to tell, I didn’t really think about what might happen after I got on the bus and arrived at Isabel’s house. I thought of only that one act of getting there. I solved that problem with the note. I didn’t have to lie to my friend about getting my mom’s permission. She never asked.
When the final bell rang and school let out, Isabel and I stood with the other kids waiting for the bus. I confidently handed my note to the bus driver. He read it and let me on. I had worried that my fourth-grade cursive skills were not anywhere near my mother’s handwriting. The driver never said it didn’t look like a parent’s writing. I knew my mother had nearly perfect cursive, but he didn’t know that. I sat next to Isabel and we talked about all the fun things we would finally get to do at her house.
As we got further away from school, I could see the world changing. The houses getting bigger. The streets getting quieter. It was almost like watching a Disney movie where the colors got brighter and animals broke out in song. I could feel this weight of returning home and helping with my brothers and sisters lifting from me.
We got to her house and her mother greeted me warmly and said she’d prepared a snack for us. Just as we were ready to sit down, Isabel’s mother said, “Don’t you think you should call your mother and tell her you arrived safely?”
I hadn’t thought of that. So, I quickly made up a lie. “She’s not worried about me. She knows I’m here. I’ll call when I’m ready to go home and she’ll come pick me up.” Ouch. Three lies in a row.
“If I were your mother, I would want to know you arrived safely anyway,” my friend’s mother insisted. “Tell me your number and I’ll dial it for you.”
Trapped with no other lies readily available, I nonchalantly told her my phone number and she handed me the phone. My mom answered and I smiled and said, “Hi Mom. Just letting you know I arrived at Isabel’s house. I’ll let you know when I need to be picked up.” Did I actually think I could blithely make this statement and everything would be fine? The reality is I didn’t think. I just winged it and hoped.
“How did you get there?” Mom asked.
“I took the bus,” I said, still holding onto my smile. “Remember? You wrote me a letter for the bus driver.”
“I did not write a letter,” mom insisted. “Did you write a letter and put my name on it?”
I couldn’t exactly lie now, could I? “Yes, I did,” I said, my smile now beginning to hurt as I strained to keep up a good front for Isabel and her mom.
“You’re grounded for a month,” mom said. “Now I have to find a way to pick you up. I’ll have to call your Aunt Joy or Donna, or your grandmother. I have to make sudden arrangements and interrupt someone else’s day to come pick you up. Why didn’t you ask me? Why didn’t you let me try to work this out first?
I could have answered because I knew she’d say no, but I didn’t want to say that with everyone waiting for me to finish with my phone call. Instead I said, “I don’t know,” and pasted on my smile again.
“Let me talk to Isabel’s mother. You are in very hot water here. Your decision to lie and cheat not only hurts our family, but Isabel’s family, too. And at least one of your aunts and her family, or your grandmother and her foster girls. Count how many people you have hurt with this lie.”
I didn’t dare start counting or I’d likely cry. I handed the phone to my friend’s mother and said, “My mom wants to talk to you.” Then I whispered, “I’m Sorry.”
All I could hear was one side of the conversation. “No, it’s not a problem,” Isabel’s mom said. “No, not an imposition at all. I’d love Isabel and Marguerita to see more of each other. Yes, I understand. Of course. I would happily drive her home myself. There is no need for you to impose on someone else’s time. Of course. Yes, I understand. Yes, call me back when you’ve made arrangements.” Then she rattled off their home address and some instructions on which streets to take, and whether to turn right or left. (This was in the days long before cell phones and GPS)
She hung up and turned to me. “I really wish you had been honest with me, Marguerita. Your mother is very embarrassed right now and has a lot of arrangements to make. She will call me back with who will be coming to pick you up.” Then she turned to Isabel. “Did you know about this? Were you apart of this?”
“No,” I jumped in. “I lied to Isabel, too. This is all my fault.”
“I see. Well, it seems that part of your punishment will be punishing Isabel as well. You are to wait on the porch for someone to arrive. Depending on who your mother finds to drive, it could be a couple hours you’ll be out there by yourself. And you are not allowed to see Isabel until you are no longer grounded.”
“Even at church?” I asked.
“I didn’t ask that, but I assume that will be the case.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I turned to Isabel and choked out my apology, as I held back tears. “I’m really sorry. I just didn’t think. And now I’ve ruined everything. I just wanted…” I had no other words to offer in explanation. Worse, I thought of all the people who would be very disappointed in me. I was sure my mother was more than embarrassed. The last thing she wanted was to appear to be a bad mother, the woman who didn’t watch over her kids. Somehow, I’d managed to give that impression, too.
Isabel’s mom ushered me to the front door. But she did let me take my juice and cookie with me and made sure I had a warm jacket to wear in case it got cold. She left the door open with the screen. My guess was that way she could watch me or hear me if I tried to make a run for it. Not that I would. I had no idea where I was in relation to home. I hadn’t paid a bit of attention to where the bus went once I was inside.
“I know you are a good girl,” Isabel’s mom said. “I know you have a good heart and I know your parents are good people.”
All I could do was nod. Then the phone rang and she rushed back inside. “A blue and white car, and her name is Joy,” Isabel’s other said. “Got it. No, really, it’s no trouble. I know she’s usually a good girl. It’s the age. They do crazy things sometimes. They don’t think it through.” Then she hung up and came outside.
“Your Aunt Joy is coming to get you,” she said. “She should be here in about thirty minutes. Don’t leave until she talks to me and I know she is the right person to pick you up.”
I nodded again and hung my head. How embarrassing. How many more people will know about this before it’s over? Probably all my aunts and uncles and grandparents. Of course, all my brothers and sisters will know. I’ll be the example of what not to do in life. It might as well be the entire world.
“Do you need anything else? I hate to leave you out here alone,” Isabel’s mom said.
I shook my head. Being alone on the stoop was nothing compared to what was going to happen later.
“This will be a good time to think about what you could have done differently. I hope that after your month of punishment is up, you will be able to get together with Isabel with proper permission.”
Somehow, her not being mad hurt even worse. I expected her to tell me what an awful child I was. Or to yell at me about hurting Isabel’s nice day. Or to tell me how I ruined the nice snacks she’d made for us. I wasn’t sure what Isabel thought. Did she think I was an evil kid? What if her mom decided I was not the kind of girl she wanted Isabel to befriend? What if Isabel decided she didn’t want to be my friend anymore?
My stomach churned as I waited on the stoop for my aunt to arrive. All I could do was ruminate on all the things I did wrong.
Justice, Love, and Forgiveness
My aunt wasn’t mean to me when she picked me up. Instead, she told me how worried mom had been when I didn’t show up at home at my usual time. She explained all the bad things mom’s think when their child is missing. That made me feel even worse. Aunt Joy said she knew that kids didn’t always think through things and that she had done some pretty stupid things in her own life. She assured me everyone still loved me and they had already forgiven me, but I’d still have to serve my sentence of one month of being grounded. That meant no going to grandma and grandpa’s house for TV, no watching TV at all, no doing anything after school, and of course, plenty of extra chores.
It got even worse when my father came home. He reminded me again of the worry I caused, and how I’d broken the covenant our family made together. He was big on covenants. That was a promise to be honest, to always talk things out, to provide mutual support, and above all not to lie to anyone. Ever! I’d broken that covenant six ways to Sunday.
My dad quietly and distinctly listed all the things that had transpired that day. Listening to him do that without yelling, quietly asking me to evaluate my behavior, was worse than being embarrassed in front of Isabel and her mom. It was worse than my aunt telling me how worried my mother was. I would have rather been grounded for months than to have my father so disappointed in me after a long day at work. He never used that word disappointed, but I knew it.
I hadn’t cried until then. I cried because of my foolishness and how I’d ruined a good thing. And then he hugged me and said he and mom still loved me so much. He told me he knew it had been a rough couple of years. He apologized for not always being available or knowing what I needed. He partially blamed himself. But he knew we’d all get through this. He knew I’d do better.
Then I cried even more because everyone still loved me. And I didn’t deserve it.
Using Life for Fiction and Fiction for Life
It is this memory, and many others, that have served me in the writing of my new middle-grade novel. I vividly remember who I was as at ten, eleven, twelve years old, and a teenager. I vividly remember my need to understand the world beyond my own family while having this need to place myself within that larger world. I wanted to know everything. I wanted to be grown up and on my own but still have the comfort and love of home at my beck and call. I questioned everything—not only my decisions but my parents and friend’s decisions.
I now know this is a natural thing for that age. It is the beginning of finding identity and discovering who you are, and how you are both the same and different from your parents, your siblings, and your friends. It is a scary, yet exciting time of life where growth is accelerated in all directions at the same time—physically, emotionally, and intellectually. All that accelerated growth also makes it very confusing.
It is these types of mistakes and learning that are critical to my middle grade characters and their lives. Though their lives are even more complex and difficult than my childhood, the learning is the same. The needs are the same. In the end we must all find identity. We must all separate from our parents and our family. We must all learn how to advocate for ourselves and others, even when it is uncomfortable. Using my own lessons and putting them within the framework of a character’s life, is what makes it real—something a reader can identify with and say: “I may not have the exact same problems—being in foster care, having to find my identity without my core family—but I can identify with those feelings because I had those feelings, too.
Gaining Wisdom from Foolish Mistakes
In the process of accepting my punishment for taking the bus that day, and working to make it right, I learned how to ask for what I wanted and advocate for it. I learned how to confront a question and negotiate better instead of giving in or giving up. By asking and then listening to why my parents would say no, I learned what things they were balancing in their decision. I learned there is always another way to get what I need that doesn’t require dishonesty. It may take longer, or I may have to work harder, but I still get what I need in the end. Yes, those were all lessons for a ten-year-old, and an eleven-year-old to learn and change and grow. Later in life, with new foolish choices, I had to relearn some of those same lessons along with new elements and nuances.
After my month of punishment was up, I also had aunts and uncles sharing some of the foolish things they did at our extended family get togethers. That helped to make me realize I wasn’t the bad seed after all. Everyone makes mistakes and, at least in the case of my extended family, you get forgiven. You still have to serve your punishment but you are forgiven as long as you are striving to learn and change—to become a better person.
That lesson of justice coupled with love has stuck with me for my entire life. Though I’m still probably more of a goody-two-shoes than most people. For me the rules have remained the same. Love the person, but not the behavior. When you do something wrong you have to suffer the punishment and be willing to learn from it. We all expect more from each other. We will support each other in the learning, but no one can do it for you. We will offer forgiveness if you truly keep trying and learning. But if you refuse to learn, forgiveness can’t happen.
Without forgiveness there is no trust. Without trust there is no good relationship. Without relationships, it’s like being grounded forever. You are locked in a room of your own making—whether that’s your home, someone else’s home, or a real prison.
I never want to be in that place of no trust or forgiveness. Perhaps that is why I’ve remained that ultra-responsible person in my family and in my life in general. I’m very aware of hurting others—some say overly aware. But I’m also very fortunate to have so much love surrounding me and supporting me. A willingness to change is very hard. Admitting being wrong is very hard. Learning to live in a different way is very hard. I’ve had to do all of those things many times in my life. But it’s worth it in the end. The reward is beyond compare.
Maggie Lynch is the author of 26 published books. Her fiction tells stories of people making heroic choices one messy moment at a time. Her nonfiction provides authors with information and tools for self-publishing from the basics of creating a professional package to getting books distributed around the world, and finally marketing options. You can check out her personal website at maggielynch.com