This one time I was watching TV with my grandma. I was 6 and we were watching some police chase type-y show about crime and corruption. I was rooting for the protagonist and invested in the story. There were some details I couldn’t understand so I asked my grandma something along the lines of “why did the bad guy do so and so?” And I got the following reply:
“There is no such thing as good guys and bad guys. It’s not that simple.”
My narrow little mind cracked in that moment and puzzled over this for years.
I wanted to write something about the polarity of good and bad because I encountered an interesting image the other day:
It reminded me of a separate encounter with this idea in grade 10 law class. I don’t know if you remember this, Karen. But I was writing a paper on recidivism amongst criminal youth and talking to you about how, it struck me as true, that it is just as easy for someone to “succeed” in the world as it is for someone to “fail” in the worst sense possible and become a criminal. You looked at me in disbelief and said “How can you possibly say that? People who succeed have to work so much harder.”
I wasn’t good at explaining myself then–finding the right words now, I was trying to talk about a type of inertia that gets accumulated from someone’s life situation that propels them in a certain direction. Inertia draws no distinctions between good and bad, it’s just an energy that builds and builds. Just as good habits accumulate and multiply, so do bad ones, and the slightest change could result in a world of difference in someone’s life situation over a longer time horizon.
Everyone is a protagonist in their own life, no one would like to think of themselves as “the other”, the foreign being that is in the wrong, contrasted with “us” being in the right. Everyone is really just living their life, making their best judgments given their life situation and psychological make-up. In that sense everyone deserves empathy and not to be chastised for their choices.
At this point you might say, what about the psychopaths and sociopaths? They must be actually bad and wired differently and we shouldn’t think of them as being the same as us. They don’t deserve empathy, we cannot possibly relate to them.
I don’t know about that.
Last summer I found myself in a women in silicon valley book signing (thanks for the invite Sam!), sitting across from John Carreyrou, the journalist who uncovered the Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos scandal. As the women around me shook their heads in disgust and disbelief when John talked about Elizabeth’s increasingly manipulative actions, I was nervously shaking in my seat because no one seems to be empathizing with her.
Because how can we be, so arrogantly sure, that if we were placed in the same situation, we wouldn’t make the same mistakes? Who’s to say what it feels like to grow up as a little girl, whose all-consuming desire is to be someone important, perhaps as a result of not having received enough love? Who’s to say that lying doesn’t get easier once you start–even with a little one, just to raise money to build this expensive technology (because Steve Jobs did something similar, right?)–causing you to lose track of the lies and let the situation get out of hand? More importantly, how can we stop what’s “evil” if we don’t even know to recognize it in ourselves?
For most of my life I’ve been trying to be a “good person”. I started experiencing a lot of shame over the last couple of years when my mind got quiet enough to see the whole situation–including just how much anger and aggression was actually created by my neurotic attempts to be “good”. I thought back to all the times when I was younger, when I got angry at my parents for “being racist or some other thing-ist”, and for “poisoning me with outdated ideas”. I thought back to all the cruel little ways I judged and dismissed people as corrupt. And I realized I’m doing it too, I’m playing the same game. I’m only adding to the suffering, to the antagonism, aggression and anger.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Hawaii lately. By chance I came across a prayer from the island called ho’oponopono, it goes like this:
Please forgive me.
I love you.