Today and tonight have definitely been thought provoking in the philosophical moral arena, revolving around the concepts of moral culpability, redemption and forgiveness, and the sources/causes/reasons for ‘evil’ action.
I began my day with an intense gaming session with my good friends Jason and Bryce, playing one of our long-standing favorite revolving around the lives of two young men in the knightly service of their lord (now king). Without going into too much detail (because there are others out there that play the same game with Jason, and I don’t want to give away too much of the plot points), we found ourselves performing as part of our duties field trials for those who had committed crimes, some of them capital offenses, for which we were expected to carry out punishment. In the abstract, it is very easy to think in egalitarian terms, but when faced with real crime and real victims with which you have to get up close and personal, it evokes emotions of anger and righteous vengeance that can play heavily into your decisions as judge. Let’s just say I was deep in character and had moments when I was living the moment, and I was not merciful. Crimes of violence are easy to punish when you take the side of the victim.
After wrapping up a very satisfying gaming session, with a feeling of moral (if not medieval) authority, I had the pleasure and fortune to go out to theater with Julie after a lovely Sushi dinner at Kamakaze, one of our local haunts, and what is the subject of our evening’s entertainment? The psychology of criminal behavior and the exploration of the possibility of compassion for the criminal, even when that criminal is guilty of capital offenses. The play we went to see was Frozen, put on by the Marin Theatre Company, written by Bryony Lavery and Directed by Amy Glazer, which to quote the copy from the web page is “a haunting play about three people whose lives are connected by the disappearance and murder of a little girl” — in specific, the mother of the child, the murderer of the child, and the psychologist who is studying the murderer as part of a thesis she is advocating that the violent criminal behavior exhibited by serial killers is based in brain structure and is outside of morality — is a compulsion that the killer is incapable of mediating or avoiding. Throughout the play we are introduced to a horrific act of child molestation and murder (of course occurring off-screen and off-time) and then left with the aftermath, as a mother tries to cope with the loss of her daughter, and finally with forgiveness and release, as a psychologist tries to discover the root causes of this violent behavior and ultimately gives strong evidence to the claim of brain trauma and early childhood abuse and neglect leaving the murderer incapable of attachment and identification with others, and with the murderer himself, who through contact with the psychologist and ultimately the mother, comes to understand the seemingly obvious but to him completely incomprehensible reality that when he raped and murdered this girl, he actually hurt her.
At the end of the play, I found myself thinking of so many things, and questioning my black and white moral superiority from the game previously in the day — not that I truly identified with my character’s actions directly, but there is part of me which is compassionate of the viewpoint of the simple equation of punishment for crime, and responsibility always laying in the hands of the acting party. The line to walk is difficult, and it is summed up so beautifully in the play, with the quote:
“The difference between evil and illness is the difference between sin and symptom”
If those of us who commit the most heinous of crimes, violence and murder against other humans, are through nature or nurture rendered incapable of knowing the difference between right and wrong action, and are effectively impaired from human reaction, are they ultimately to be held morally responsible for their actions, or are we to look upon them with compassion as incapable of functioning in society as the rest of us do. Do we murder the murderer, or do we help him try to understand and cope with his disability? And if we decide to recognize these severe criminal actions as symptoms of disease, how does that affect our system of justice and our sense of retribution for acts that in their base reality destroy lives and shatter realities?
It leaves me reflecting on the idea that none of us are born with evil in our hearts, and so very often (if not universally) evil action is born from a person’s inability to cope with their own childhood abuse and trauma. The evil of the world is born of the evil we inflict on children. And so many children of this world are abused and damaged, so very very many. How are we left to feel about the child who is molested, who grows up and molests other children, or the child who is beaten as a child and grows up to beat other children or worse? Do we feel compassion, anger, hatred, or all of the above? Do we try to reach across the chasm of our own grief and rage and into the reality of the person who is the source of our destroyed world?
The play does not provide an easy question to ponder, nor does it provide and easy answer to the question, and perhaps that’s why it has received such tremendously good reviews. One subject matter the play does not even try to address or discuss is the place of faith in a just god in the face of such amazingly tragic reality. Can we believe in a God that allows a world to exist where children are hurt in so many ways?
It’s ironic that lately I’ve been listening to a podcast from UC Berkeley which is the recordings of lectures from a course entitled ‘existentialism in film and literature’, taught by one of my former professors from Cal, Hubert Dreyfus, and a course I’ve actually taken before just over thirteen years ago. I’ve really been enjoying the re-thinking of the questions and problems proposed by Pascal, Kierkegaard and others, but in reference to this question of God the father of an evil world, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov postulates through the voice of Ivan Karamazov the argument that the world cannot be the creation of a God that allows the torture and gruesome deaths of so many children. While Ivan’s motivations in the argument are not altruistic, nor does his argument necessarily hold up to scrutiny, it is a common enough theme in modern theological and moral philosophical thought that it bears taking seriously. How can we as rational and ethical creatures maintain belief in a loving and protective creator God that also created the means of such great suffering of innocents. It appears to be logically inconsistent. Of course, there are ways out of this train of thinking, but I won’t muddy the water with those now — only the synchronicity of events is what is relevant and interesting to me at this point in time.
Also, this whole subject brings up rather personal issues regarding my own childhood and my molestation by my uncle. I’ve often been a strong believer (as it is backed up by scientific evidence) of the concept that child abuse and molestation doesn’t appear in a vacuum, and for every act of reported child abuse or molestation there is an echoing crime committed against the perpetrator as a child. Intellectually, I agree with the idea that a person violated in such a way as a child can suffer damage that compels them to act in like manner to other children. Emotionally, I feel like a fifteen-year-old young man should know better than to abuse a five-year-old boy, no matter what the origin of the compulsion. I haven’t fully forgiven my uncle of the damage he’s done not only in my own life, but in the lives of my cousins as well, who he lived next to in a townhouse complex for several years. I’m certain while his crime against me was a one-time occasion, those boys got the worst of it on a regular basis, and I just can’t bring myself to look at him or to be in his presence, especially since no formal crimes have been reported, and no official justice has been brought to bear against him. While I can possibly bring myself to forgive a man who has been brought before justice to serve his sentence of punishment in retribution for his crime, can I extend that same compassion and forgiveness to a man who is walking the streets free, never required to face the realities of his actions? In a karmic way, he’s suffered a great deal already, as it has shattered his life in many ways. But is karmic retribution enough to make me feel compassion for the man? At this point, that is a resounding no. Perhaps one day, but for now I still refuse to associate with him, and have placed him in the past tense of my life, along with so many others of my family. Perhaps I’m missing an opportunity of redemption. Maybe this event I have blocked out of my life because holding it up for inspection is too painful for me even on the best of my days. On those days in which I create a space to meditate and reflect, I allow myself compassion for my uncle and I wonder what happened to him, who hurt him as a little boy, and can I help him to understand his culpability, in the same way that the mother in the play helps the murderer to understand his own. Sometimes you just want your pain acknowledged by the one who caused you pain. Sometimes you just want the person to go away forever. The truth is, although the violence is the fault of the person doing the violence, and they are the source of pain for the victim, the pain that you carry as a victim into your future has everything to do with you, and nothing to do with the perpetrator of that violence. It’s your choice to carry that pain, even if it’s not your fault that you received it in the first place. Most of the time you’re unable to understand that choice, or do anything about it, but sometimes you have moments of clarity and you realize it’s within your power to forgive and let go. Your abuser has no power over you that you don’t allow them to have. Once the violence is in the past, it belongs to you.
We have two major traditions in our lives as humans relating to our children — the path of kindness, and the path of cruelty, and each perpetuates themselves with fantastic ease and power. Perhaps one day we’ll be able to overcome the latter and give ourselves over to the former. My link in the chain of violence thankfully is shattered with me, and my focus is in propagating kindness. I have two lovely boys that I cherish and protect and shower in affection, and I hope they do the same for their own kids in due time.