Forgiving the North Side

The guy who cuts my hair normally wasn’t available. When I looked at the schedule online, I didn’t see him listed for several weeks, so I sought out the woman who had also cut my hair a couple of times in the last year and who had done a great job. I was dismayed to learn that she is no longer working at the barbershop near my home, but instead across town on Kearney Street. And thus I found myself driving to the North Side.

Everyone in Springfield knows that there is a North and South Side of the city. This was once codified, when the two towns were formed, as North Springfield and Springfield, and then they merged sometime after the Civil War. The train tracks were the natural divide, with poor workers living on the north and the merchants, doctors, and lawyers living on the south. Division Street happens to be on the parallel that divided the north and south in the Civil War, but Commercial Street is where Springfield was separated.

I grew up on the North Side. Not just the North, I was out in the country north of town. I went to Pleasant View elementary and middle school, and Hillcrest High School. A friend asked me recently if I knew I was poor growing up, and I told her that I did. We had a nice enough house, but we almost lost it to bankruptcy. I regularly stole food to get by. I didn’t have the opportunities a lot of my classmates did, and I was different enough from them that I was bullied and beaten as well. This is not an unusual tale on the North Side.

So when I have to go back there, it is with ambivalence. I am conflicted because I was hurt there, but when I drive out in the country north of town, I also love it. I love the trees and the rolling hills, and the solitude, and there were good memories too. Playing in Matt Wilson’s backyard, biking to the bridge near Fellow’s Lake with Megan, those rare opportunities when I was invited to Cody’s house. Matt Hudson’s class in high school, and working with Justin on IT stuff. Walking through the woods and across the hills behind our home. It was beautiful there.

But there was so much pain. My parents’ divorce. The concussions and spilled blood. Friends who committed suicide or overdosed or died in car crashes.

When I drive through a North Springfield neighbourhood, I get this weird mix of sadness and jubilation. The poverty I often see makes me sad, but I am so very happy to have escaped all that.

My barber likes the North Side, both my usual guy and the woman who was cutting my hair on Friday. She talked about how great her clients were and how authentic everyone was, and I hear that with a strange sort of pride. Yes, we were authentic. Blood on the knuckles authentic—you always knew where you stood with North Siders. But as she talked about how much more she liked it than the South Side, I began to wonder at myself.

I realized that I was holding onto an awful lot of pain. In some strange way, I had personified the North Side, and I held a grudge against it. Many of my childhood bullies have matured and are reasonably decent people now, and I have forgiven them because kids can be terrible and, truly, I recognize that we were all hurting. They were hurting me, but in many cases their parents were hurting them. The world is a broken, terrible place, and it sometimes makes us terrible people.

But I didn’t forgive the North Side. And as I reflected on this, it struck me as a particularly difficult thing to do. How can I forgive a system that gives rise to bullies, raises up teachers who pick favourites and punish the unfavoured, and failed to protect me? How can I forgive systemic poverty? I don’t think I can put into words the thoughts that unfolded in my mind in those minutes, but they felt akin to asking, “How can I forgive the world that is broken?”

I told April over dinner that I was realizing my concept of forgiveness was inextricably tied to repentance. The more accurate question was, “How can I forgive a world that will not change and improve?” I can forgive those bullies who are no longer bullies. But for the ones who are still preying on the weak or harbouring the desire to exploit others, I have no patience. I struggle to forgive without observing a positive change first.

April rightly pointed out that forgiveness must not be tied to change. It’s about what I do, not what others do. And if anything is done, it should be what I do to try and help fix the brokenness of our systems.

But this is hard, my friends. There is part of me—not all, but a part—that hates the North Side. There is part of my heart that remains there and always will. But that part of my heart was taken, not given. There is part of me that sees beauty, and perceives that beauty as a poisoned pill.

I realized, of course, that this lack of forgiveness extends to other people. People more recently involved in my life who have hurt me, or are doing things I find frustrating or reprehensible, and I harbour ill will or negative feelings towards them. I am not forgiving because they are not changing, but that’s probably not how it should work.

I have progressed far enough to say, “That’s probably not how it should work.” But I haven’t yet reached the stage of being able to forgive. Hosea was a better man than me.

The South Side isn’t what I expected. I grew up thinking of South Siders as pretentious, stuck-up, wealthy elitists. I would never fit in at Kickapoo. All the people down there in their fancy houses with nice lawns and parents who didn’t forget to pick them up from school because they had enough money that they could could manage things like having a kid. But I wanted to move there so badly when I was a kid. I wanted to get out of the hell that was my North Side life.

And now I’m there, and people aren’t pretentious or stuck-up, at least not the people I’m around. Our neighbours are lovely, caring people, and I’ve met people through our church who grew up on the South Side and are just normal, except perhaps nicer. I suspect that schools that don’t tolerate public beatings multiple times a week result in less screwed up people.

My experience isn’t the experience of everyone on the North Side. I know people who loved our school and did well. But they were the ones who grew up there from the beginning, were Christian, and had a clique. I sometimes feel like I must be crazy—why is my perception so different from so many people, and why am I so cynical about it all? Am I mis-remembering it? But no, I’m not. Many of my friends didn’t do well either—those of us who needed each other because we didn’t really have anyone else, we shared that experience.

Can I forgive the North? I guess I have to. It seems stupid to hold a grudge against a geographic area. At the same time, I struggle: how can I forgive the North? How can I possibly forgive what they did to me? As if there was a “they.” As if there was a conspiracy, or a group of collaborators, or as if the North really did this to me.

As I write this, I suspect it has less to do with forgiveness and more to do with healing. There is still a lot of pain; pain that I forget about sometimes, but which resurfaces whenever I start driving north of Chestnut towards Division. Can I let that go and forgive? I have done it with other events, and other people, so why hasn’t it happened with the North? I moved out of that home in the country 13 years ago, but still sometimes I dream about it.

I suppose I just have to pray about it, and give it to God. Like so many other emotional and mental wounds, I suspect that one day I will look back and be surprised that I do not hurt and haven’t for a long time. That is often how He works in my life: quietly, in the background, but ever diligent.

3 thoughts on “Forgiving the North Side

  1. How insightful. Odd how it seems that every community has their “north and south” sides, and how sad. Thank you for voicing this, may this insight be helpful in healing others.

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