I had so many different ideas mashing about in my mind for how to introduce the July 2007 Just Posts.
Then I read Jen's introduction, and I forgot the rest of my ideas. My mind congealed into one hot question: can people simply be evil? Or do they lack ability to know how to productively manage their emotions? How do their circumstances matter within assessing this?
In my life, I've known a large number of cruel people, thoughtless people, people who perpetuated some of the worst kind of harm there is...people who hurt children and created the opportunity for harm to perpetuate through another generation. It may be compassionate, it may be crazy, but I don't necessarily run from people who are doing or who have done what we might call sin or bad or evil.
I expect this is because I tend to believe that people harm out of their own pain, whether it is emotional of physiological in origin.
With an almost academic and dispassionate curiosity, I begin trying to understand them. The original distance is necessary in order to make this about understanding the other person, versus myself. I usually find understanding and compassion. It certainly helps if the person is "reformed" or "reforming."
This is one reason you'll find me advocating sometimes for the rights of prisoners. It's also because I can see the potential for the greater good there, at least for a percentage that should make it worth our while.
But what about the man in Jen's story? If you haven't read, take a quick peek and come back. If you prefer, here's a short synopsis: an elderly man sat on a curb eating a burger. Two men exited the shelter, and one threw something at the man, hitting him in the head and causing him to drop his prized burger. Another man hit the Thrower, and Jen went to comfort the elderly man, who ended up comforting her.
What creates this sort of dynamic?
In my comment to Jen, I wrote
It distresses me on so many levels when I hear a story like that. I know the man found grace through your kindness and the other person's defense, so there three goods. But the perpetrator of cruelty, that's one pretty bad bad. And why? Why is he as he is?
Is he like a young child, lashing out in pain, thinking it can be transferred through hitting? Lacking words or power to deal with his trouble?
In other words, can he learn to be otherwise?
Did hitting him teach him anything?
Or is the man unsalvageable, just cruel and evil, his hope point passed long ago?
Is that possible?
I often wonder...
I wonder if the Thrower was taught through violence. I wonder if he feels a white hot burn of impotence inside that he reads as rage. I wonder if the small spurt of satisfaction he felt finding and harming someone lesser than him was knocked out of him when the other man hit him. I wonder if he felt tired after the fight, and was it a relief from the anger? I wonder if what he learned was to hide his cruelty and be less public.
That last bit is the crucial portion in my mind for so many issues, conflicts, in our society today.
Since becoming a parent---an incredible life lesson in and of itself---and learning about methods of parenting, I have become so much more sensitive and aware of the way we teach, and the subtle lessons we unknowingly convey.
For example, when Persistence gets angry---the youngest and smallest, so young that she still hasn't developed her full emotional vocabulary or understanding---sometimes, she hits. In my head, I understand why. My smarting arm isn't quite so comprehending. In my heart, I worry.
It's my instinct to show her how appalled I am and to focus on what she did.
But once upon a time, I got good advice: by focusing on the bad, we reinforce it.
Instead, I rub my injured arm and say, poor arm, poor arm, oooh poor arm is hurt, there there arm, you'll be okay.
Within seconds Persistence is moved to regret and compassion, "Here, mommy arm, here," and kisses the injured spot.
"It's not okay to hit," I remind her, "It hurts. You can say, 'I'm mad,' or 'I don't like it,' or stomp your foot next time, okay?"
Children, in my experience, want to learn okay ways to manage their anger or hurt. They don't want to learn that they can't have this emotion, that it is invalid, or unwelcome, that it won't be received with respect and care. In my opinion, much of our initial reactions and emotions are very valid, and are okay. What matters is what we do from there.
With Patience, the issue is no longer physical, but is instead now more complex---largely verbal, something Persistence is quickly picking up on.
She is aware of fairness and justice. She applies it in the only way she knows: the way her parents do within the family.
It's true: this is the manner I have taught her because it is how I parent her. But me applying it to her, and her applying it to me...doesn't quite jive. I struggle with the unfairness much the same as she does.
"If you don't let me get an ice cream," she shrieked at me only this week, "Then I will...not kiss you for a week!"
The difference between how I discipline and she does is currency, power and authority, which, I guess, can be everything.
When she offers these punishments, I wonder if I've failed, if my style has failed. We employ positive parenting, generally, with natural and logical consequences. This threat is neither natural nor logical. But more than that, I worry that---despite my careful, careful attempts to make her understand that I don't like what she did, not who she is---I haven't gotten the true point across. Is it my talking or her listening? Withholding love is not one of the punishments from us. In fact, based on good advice from my friend Gina, after every discipline moment, we hug and say I love you. But for Patience, her love is one of the few currencies she carries at this stage of life.
At least she knows how much we love her. At least she knows that withholding her kisses will hurt us.
Still, I haven't quite gotten across to her yet---nor do I expect to for many, many years, maybe not until she herself is a parent, if that happens---that I do not discipline her to hurt her.
That has to be one of the most painful parenting moments---those times when they rip your heart out of your chest and stomp on it---knowing they do not yet understand just how deeply out of love we do these things to guide them, to help provide them the tools they need in life, to be happy and do well.
It feels like hurt. So the instinct is to hurt back.
As adults, do we really grow out of these tendencies, or do we simply gain more power within life that tests us less?
I hope it is that we have better tools to manage the challenges, but I suspect it is a combination of the two.
So back to the scenario Jen described. I wonder what difference it would have made if, instead of hitting the Thrower, the Hitter had, like Jen, rushed to the side of the injured man, and offered him comfort and support.
I believe my children will grow up to be lovely people.
But I am raising them within a life that contains many privileges for a life that hopefully will contain even more.
What if our circumstances were different? Would I be so focused on ethics, or would I be more focused on survival skills?
If I were very clever, now I would link this clearly back to the race discussion that has gone on this week and will continue next week. I would credit Kim, who brought up the concept of class in my comments, and Chani who mentioned economics. I would offer, more or less, the same theory for class that I have for race
Because while I don't think another person's socioeconomic status ought to matter to me, in my assessment of them, it can matter to them in how they feel a part of the world and therefore I ought to respect that, especially if they ask me to consider it as part of my understanding of them as an individual. I ask the same. My socioeconomic status experiences are a part of me, too, and have affected how I view class, class issues, and culture. Where I come from, the place and the people, affect who I am and how I perceive things, as well as my beliefs. I think this rings true for all of us, regardless.
(For more information about my theory of social justice and economics, read my March Just Post essay, which also includes links to other social justice posts I wrote within this same topic and two of my prison posts.)
As I said, the myriad ideas floating about in my mind congealed into a question after reading Jen's post. After writing this one, they have gelled further in so many ways as I begin to better comprehend how justice, fairness, class, race, status, situation, childhood, and more come together to form the individual we are---and how who we are is so very dynamic by circumstances and experience.
I respect more and more those who remain heartful, despite challenges, poor circumstances, or difficulties. I understand that jaded and cynical can be much, much easier.
I still don't know whether people can simply be evil. I don't dismiss it as possible that there are people who are simply evil. Some people have assured me passionately that they exist. I haven't met one, though. I hope I never, ever do.
Many thanks to Jen and Mad for starting and continuing the Just Post Roundtable each month. To read the other posts, check out their sites. As always, it's an awe-inspiring collection.
Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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