Thursday, November 5, 2009

An Unexpected Lesson from Schulz

Recently, I finished reading Schulz and Peanuts, by David Michaelis. It's the life story of Charles "Sparky" Schulz, who, in the early 1950s, created the Peanuts cartoon strip. Peanutsran almost continuously for the next fifty years, Schulz taking only one short vacation from drawing the strip in the late 1990s.

In 1999, Schulz had a stroke. At the time he went into the hospital for surgery to help with the aftermath of the stroke, his doctors discovered he had colon cancer. The cancer had metastasized, and he was told he was terminally ill.

Canadian Lynn Johnston, Sparky's friend, and creator of the comic strip For Better or For Worse, went to visit him in the hospital. 'He reminisced with Lynn, but all his memories seemed to be about being picked on as a boy, and about how he still wanted to meet the kids who had bullied him face-to-face and get even. "I'd always known that side of him," recalled Lynn, "but at a time when people usually resolve their unresolvable histories by making peace with the past, he was angry that he'd never changed anything. You could see the bitterness in him.... Nothing in all of his seventy-seven years had been resolved."' (p. 562)
I was stunned when I read this, in part, because I too was teased when I went to grade school (which I've written about in prior posts). Although I read Michaelis's book in detail, I don't honestly remember what Sparky was teased about, but I'll take it for granted that he was. I know for a fact he was not teased about being gay.

I was also stunned when I read this because, here is Sparky Schulz, having achieved so much with his deceptively simple, yet complex, and beloved comic strip over five decades, somehow making the choice to recall not how much joy he had brought to millions upon millions of people; not all of the wonderful experiences his strip had afforded him over most of his adult life; not all of the recognition and rewards he'd earned over a lifetime of dedicated service to his art--but, instead, how much he'd been hurt by other children when he was a boy, and how he'd never been able to exact revenge on those who had caused him pain and anguish.

Long ago, through my many trips to Disneyland between 1976 and 2007, I realized that inside each one of us is a child, the child we once were and always will be, even though we grow up and mature, adopting adult characteristics, both mentally and physically. I believe that when we are hurt as an adult, it's that little child inside who feels the pain, as he recalls how he felt in the past when a related hurt was inflicted on him. It's also that child who keeps us in touch with the essence of who we are, with our spirit and our soul. As long as we draw breath, that child inside remains alive within us.

I understand Charles Schulz carrying the hurt from when he was a child into old age. I've always wondered where my own hurt from all those years ago would end up. Often, I think I'm over the pain from the past. I can't say that I've forgiven all of the people who hated me because they thought I was gay. In my own way, I've had to deal with that pain the best I can. But I know for a fact that what I suffered is always close to the surface. It doesn't take much for me, even at fifty years of age, to descend again into how lonely and miserable I felt because I was different from everyone else, and because I had no friends.

And, now, I see from what Sparky is quoted as saying when he was close to death in 2000 that, for some people anyway, they never forget that hurt. And, despite everything else that's happened to them in their lives, all the good and the positives, they remain that wounded child, still needing retribution, still suffering because of what they once endured.

Above all, when I read what Schulz said, I told myself that I don't want to be him on my deathbed. I don't want the bullying and the teasing, and how I felt, and what I still want to do to the bullies, to be among the foremost thoughts on my mind. I do not want my bullies to have the same hold on me, for an entire lifetime, that they had on Charles Schulz.

I must not let that happen. I will not let that happen.

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