RULE - 6




It does not seem reasonable to describe the young man who shot twenty children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 as a religious person. This is equally true for the Colorado theatre gunman and the Columbine High School killers. But these murderous individuals had a problem with reality that existed at a religious depth. As one of the members of the Columbine duo wrote:

The human race isn’t worth fighting for, only worth killing. Give the Earth back to the animals. They deserve it infinitely more than we do. Nothing means anything anymore .

People who think such things view Being itself as inequitable and harsh to the point of corruption, and human Being, in particular, as contemptible. They appoint themselves supreme adjudicators of reality and find it wanting. They are the ultimate critics. The deeply cynical writer continues:

If you recall your history, the Nazis came up with a “final solution” to the Jewish problem. 

… Kill them all. Well, in case you haven’t figured it out, I say “KILL MANKIND.” No one should survive .

For such individuals, the world of experience is insufficient and evil—so to hell with everything!

  What is happening when someone comes to think in this manner? A great German play, Faust: A Tragedy, written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, addresses that issue. The play’s main character, a scholar named Heinrich Faust, trades his immortal soul to the devil, Mephistopheles. In return, he receives whatever he desires while still alive on Earth. In Goethe’s play, Mephistopheles is the eternal adversary of Being. He has a central, defining credo:

I am the spirit who negates

and rightly so, for all that comes to be

deserves to perish, wretchedly.

It were better nothing would begin!

Thus everything that your terms sin,

destruction, evil represent—

that is my proper element.

Goethe considered this hateful sentiment so important—so key to the central element of vengeful human destructiveness—that he had Mephistopheles say it a second time, phrased somewhat differently, in Part II of the play, written many years later.

  People think often in the Mephistophelean manner, although they seldom act upon their thoughts as brutally as the mass murderers of school, college and theatre. Whenever we experience injustice, real or imagined; whenever we encounter tragedy or fall prey to the machinations of others; whenever we experience the horror and pain of our own apparently arbitrary limitations—the temptation to question Being and then to curse it rises foully from the darkness. Why must innocent people suffer so terribly? What kind of bloody, horrible planet is this, anyway?

  Life is in truth very hard. Everyone is destined for pain and slated for destruction. Sometimes suffering is clearly the result of a personal fault such as willful blindness, poor decision-making or malevolence. In such cases, when it appears to be self-inflicted, it may even seem just. People get what they deserve, you might contend. That’s cold comfort, however, even when true. Sometimes, if those who are suffering changed their behaviour, then their lives would unfold less tragically. But human control is limited. Susceptibility to despair, disease, aging and death is universal. In the final analysis, we do not appear to be the architects of our own fragility. Whose fault is it, then?

  People who are very ill (or, worse, who have a sick child) will inevitably find themselves asking this question, whether they are religious believers or not. The same is true of someone who finds his shirtsleeve caught in the gears of a giant bureaucracy—who is suffering through a tax audit, or fighting an interminable lawsuit or divorce. And it’s not only the obviously suffering who are tormented by the need to blame someone or something for the intolerable state of their Being. At the height of his fame, influence and creative power, for example, the towering Leo Tolstoy himself began to question the value of human existence.  He reasoned in this way: 

My position was terrible. I knew that I could find nothing in the way of rational knowledge except a denial of life; and in faith I could find nothing except a denial of reason, and this was even more impossible than a denial of life. According to rational knowledge, it followed that life is evil, and people know it. They do not have to live, yet they have lived and they do live, just as I myself had lived, even though I had known for a long time that life is meaningless and evil.

Try as he might, Tolstoy could identify only four means of escaping from such thoughts. One was retreating into childlike ignorance of the problem. Another was pursuing mindless pleasure. The third was “continuing to drag out a life that is evil and meaningless, knowing beforehand that nothing can come of it.” He identified that particular form of escape with weakness: “The people in this category know that death is better than life, but they do not have the strength to act rationally and quickly put an end to the delusion by killing themselves.…”

  Only the fourth and final mode of escape involved “strength and energy. It consists of destroying life, once one has realized that life is evil and meaningless.” Tolstoy relentlessly followed his thoughts:

Only unusually strong and logically consistent people act in this manner. Having realized all the stupidity of the joke that is being played on us and seeing that the blessings of the dead are greater than those of the living and that it is better not to exist, they act and put an end to this stupid joke; and they use any means of doing it: a rope around the neck, water, a knife in the heart, a train.

Tolstoy wasn’t pessimistic enough. The stupidity of the joke being played on us does not merely motivate suicide. It motivates murder—mass murder, often followed by suicide. That is a far more effective existential protest. By June of 2016, unbelievable as it may seem, there had been one thousand mass killings (defined as four or more people shot in a single incident, excluding the shooter) in the US in twelve hundred and sixty days. That’s one such event on five of every six days for more than three years. Everyone says, “We don’t understand.” How can we still pretend that? Tolstoy understood, more than a century ago. The ancient authors of the biblical story of Cain and Abel understood, as well, more than twenty centuries ago. They described murder as the first act of post-Edenic history: and not just murder, but fratricidal murder—murder not only of someone innocent but of someone ideal and good, and murder done consciously to spite the creator of the universe. Today’s killers tell us the same thing, in their own words. Who would dare say that this is not the worm at the core of the apple? But we will not listen, because the truth cuts too close to the bone. Even for a mind as profound as that of the celebrated Russian author, there was no way out. How can the rest of us manage, when a man of Tolstoy’s stature admits defeat? For years, he hid his guns from himself and would not walk with a rope in hand, in case he hanged himself.

  How can a person who is awake avoid outrage at the world?

Vengeance or Transformation

A religious man might shake his fist in desperation at the apparent injustice and blindness of God. Even Christ Himself felt abandoned before the cross, or so the story goes. A more agnostic or atheistic individual might blame fate, or meditate bitterly on the brutality of chance. Another might tear himself apart, searching for the character flaws underlying his suffering and deterioration. These are all variations on a theme. The name of the target changes, but the underlying psychology remains constant. Why? Why is there so much suffering and cruelty?

  Well, perhaps it really is God’s doing—or the fault of blind, pointless fate, if you are inclined to think that way. And there appears to be every reason to think that way. But, what happens if you do? Mass murderers believe that the suffering attendant upon existence justifies judgment and revenge, as the Columbine boys so clearly indicated:

I will sooner die than betray my own thoughts. Before I leave this worthless place, I will kill who ever I deem unfit for anything, especially life. If you pissed me off in the past, you will die if I see you. You might be able to piss off others, and have it eventually all blow over, but not me. I don’t forget people who wronged me.

One of the most vengeful murderers of the twentieth century, the terrible Carl Panzram, was raped, brutalized and betrayed in the Minnesota institution responsible for his “rehabilitation” when he was a delinquent juvenile. He emerged, enraged beyond measure, as burglar, arsonist, rapist and serial killer. He aimed consciously and consistently at destruction, even keeping track of the dollar value of the property he burned. He started by hating the individuals who had hurt him. His resentment grew, until his hatred encompassed all of mankind, and he didn’t stop there. His destructiveness was aimed in some fundamental manner at God Himself. There is no other way of phrasing it. Panzram raped, murdered and burned to express his outrage at Being. He acted as if Someone was responsible. The same thing happens in the story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s sacrifices are rejected. He exists in suffering. He calls out God and challenges the Being He created. God refuses his plea. He tells Cain that his trouble is self-induced. Cain, in his rage, kills Abel, God’s favourite (and, truth be known, Cain’s idol). Cain is jealous, of course, of his successful brother. But he destroys Abel primarily to spite God. This is the truest version of what happens when people take their vengeance to the ultimate extreme.

  Panzram’s response was (and this is what was so terrible) perfectly understandable. The details of his autobiography reveal that he was one of Tolstoy’s strong and logically consistent people. He was a powerful, consistent, fearless actor. He had the courage of his convictions. How could someone like him be expected to forgive and forget, given what had happened to him? Truly terrible things happen to people. It’s no wonder they’re out for revenge. Under such conditions, vengeance seems a moral necessity. How can it be distinguished from the demand for justice? After the experience of terrible atrocity, isn’t forgiveness just cowardice, or lack of willpower? Such questions torment me. But people emerge from terrible pasts to do good, and not evil, although such an accomplishment can seem superhuman.

  I have met people who managed to do it. I know a man, a great artist, who emerged from just such a “school” as the one described by Panzram—only this man was thrown into it as an innocent five-year-old, fresh from a long stretch in a hospital, where he had suffered measles, mumps and chicken pox, simultaneously. Incapable of speaking the language of the school, deliberately isolated from his family, abused, starved and otherwise tormented, he emerged an angry, broken young man. He hurt himself badly in the aftermath with drugs and alcohol and other forms of self-destructive behaviour. He detested everyone—God, himself and blind fate included. But he put an end to all of that. He stopped drinking. He stopped hating (although it still emerges in flashes). He revitalized the artistic culture of his Native tradition, and trained young men to continue in his footsteps. He produced a fifty-foot totem pole memorializing the events of his life, and a canoe, forty feet long, from a single log, of a kind rarely if ever produced now. He brought his family together, and held a great potlatch, with sixteen hours of dancing and hundreds of people in attendance, to express his grief, and make peace with the past. He decided to be a good person, and then did the impossible things required to live that way.

  I had a client who did not have good parents. Her mother died when she was very young. Her grandmother, who raised her, was a harridan, bitter and over-concerned with appearances. She mistreated her granddaughter, punishing her for her virtues: creativity, sensitivity, intelligence—unable to resist acting out her resentment for an admittedly hard life on her granddaughter. She had a better relationship with her father, but he was an addict who died, badly, while she cared for him. My client had a son. She perpetuated none of this with him. He grew up truthful, and independent, and hard-working, and smart. Instead of widening the tear in the cultural fabric she inherited, and transmitting it, she sewed it up. She rejected the sins of her forefathers. Such things can be done.

Distress, whether psychic, physical, or intellectual, need not at all produce nihilism (that is, the radical rejection of value, meaning and desirability). Such distress always permits a variety of interpretations.

Nietzsche wrote those words. What he meant was this: people who experience evil may certainly desire to perpetuate it, to pay it forward. But it is also possible to learn good by experiencing evil. A bullied boy can mimic his tormentors. But he can also learn from his own abuse that it is wrong to push people around and make their lives miserable. Someone tormented by her mother can learn from her terrible experiences how important it is to be a good parent. Many, perhaps even most, of the adults who abuse children were abused themselves as children. However, the majority of people who were abused as children do not abuse their own children. This is a well-established fact, which can be demonstrated, simply, arithmetically, in this way: if one parent abused three children, and each of those children had three children, and so on, then there would be three abusers the first generation, nine the second, twenty-seven the third, eighty-one the fourth—and so on exponentially. After twenty generations, more than ten billion would have suffered childhood abuse: more people than currently inhabit the planet. But instead, abuse disappears across generations. People constrain its spread. That’s a testament to the genuine dominance of good over evil in the human heart.

  The desire for vengeance, however justified, also bars the way to other productive thoughts. The American/English poet T. S. Eliot explained why, in his play, The Cocktail Party. One of his characters is not having a good time of it. She speaks of her profound unhappiness to a psychiatrist. She says she hopes that all her suffering is her own fault. The psychiatrist is taken aback. He asks why. She has thought long and hard about this, she says, and has come to the following conclusion: if it’s her fault, she might be able to do something about it. If it’s God’s fault, however—if reality itself is flawed, hell-bent on ensuring her misery—then she is doomed. She couldn’t change the structure of reality itself. But maybe she could change her own life.

  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had every reason to question the structure of existence when he was imprisoned in a Soviet labour camp, in the middle of the terrible twentieth century. He had served as a soldier on the ill-prepared Russian front lines in the face of a Nazi invasion. He had been arrested, beaten and thrown into prison by his own people. Then he was struck by cancer. He could have become resentful and bitter. His life had been rendered miserable by both Stalin and Hitler, two of the worst tyrants in history. He lived in brutal conditions. Vast stretches of his precious time were stolen from him and squandered. He witnessed the pointless and degrading suffering and death of his friends and acquaintances. Then he contracted an extremely serious disease. Solzhenitsyn had cause to curse God. Job himself barely had it as hard.

  But the great writer, the profound, spirited defender of truth, did not allow his mind to turn towards vengeance and destruction. He opened his eyes, instead. During his many trials, Solzhenitsyn encountered people who comported themselves nobly, under horrific circumstances. He contemplated their behaviour deeply. Then he asked himself the most difficult of questions: had he personally contributed to the catastrophe of his life? If so, how? He remembered his unquestioning support of the Communist Party in his early years. He reconsidered his whole life. He had plenty of time in the camps. How had he missed the mark, in the past? How many times had he acted against his own conscience, engaging in actions that he knew to be wrong? How many times had he betrayed himself, and lied? Was there any way that the sins of his past could be rectified, atoned for, in the muddy hell of a Soviet gulag?

  Solzhenitsyn pored over the details of his life, with a fine-toothed comb. He asked himself a second question, and a third. Can I stop making such mistakes, now? Can I repair the damage done by my past failures, now? He learned to watch and to listen. He found people he admired; who were honest, despite everything. He took himself apart, piece by piece, let what was unnecessary and harmful die, and resurrected himself. Then he wrote The Gulag Archipelago, a history of the Soviet prison camp system. It’s a forceful, terrible book, written with the overwhelming moral force of unvarnished truth. Its sheer outrage screamed unbearably across hundreds of pages. Banned (and for good reason) in the USSR, it was smuggled to the West in the 1970s, and burst upon the world. Solzhenitsyn’s writing utterly and finally demolished the intellectual credibility of communism, as ideology or society. He took an axe to the trunk of the tree whose bitter fruits had nourished him so poorly—and whose planting he had witnessed and supported.

  One man’s decision to change his life, instead of cursing fate, shook the whole pathological system of communist tyranny to its core. It crumbled entirely, not so many years later, and Solzhenitsyn’s courage was not the least of the reasons why. He was not the only such person to perform such a miracle. Václav Havel, the persecuted writer who later, impossibly, became the president of Czechoslovakia, then of the new Czech Republic, comes to mind, as does Mahatma Gandhi.

Things Fall Apart

Whole peoples have adamantly refused to judge reality, to criticize Being, to blame God. It’s interesting to consider the Old Testament Hebrews in this regard. Their travails followed a consistent pattern. The stories of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel and Noah and the Tower of Babel are truly ancient. Their origins vanish into the mysteries of time. It’s not until after the flood story in Genesis that something like history, as we understand it, truly starts. It starts with Abraham. Abraham’s descendants become the Hebrew people of the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Bible. They enter a covenant with Yahweh—with God—and begin their recognizably historical adventures.

  Under the leadership of a great man, the Hebrews organize themselves into a society, and then an empire. As their fortunes rise, success breeds pride and arrogance. Corruption raises its ugly head. The increasingly hubristic state becomes obsessed with power, begins to forget its duty to the widows and orphans, and deviates from its age-old agreement with God. A prophet arises. He brazenly and publicly reviles the authoritarian king and faithless country for their failures before God—an act of blind courage—telling them of the terrible judgment to come. When his wise words are not completely ignored, they are heeded too late. God smites his wayward people, dooming them to abject defeat in battle and generations of subjugation. The Hebrews repent, at length, blaming their misfortune on their own failure to adhere to God’s word. They insist to themselves that they could have done better. They rebuild their state, and the cycle begins again.

  This is life. We build structures to live in. We build families, and states, and countries. We abstract the principles upon which those structures are founded and formulate systems of belief. At first we inhabit those structures and beliefs like Adam and Eve in Paradise. But success makes us complacent. We forget to pay attention. We take what we have for granted. We turn a blind eye. We fail to notice that things are changing, or that corruption is taking root. And everything falls apart. Is that the fault of reality—of God? Or do things fall apart because we have not paid sufficient attention?

  When the hurricane hit New Orleans, and the town sank under the waves, was that a natural disaster? The Dutch prepare their dikes for the worst storm in ten thousand years. Had New Orleans followed that example, no tragedy would have occurred. It’s not that no one knew. The Flood Control Act of 1965 mandated improvements in the levee system that held back Lake Pontchartrain. The system was to be completed by 1978. Forty years later, only 60 percent of the work had been done. Willful blindness and corruption took the city down.

  A hurricane is an act of God. But failure to prepare, when the necessity for preparation is well known—that’s sin. That’s failure to hit the mark. And the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). The ancient Jews always blamed themselves when things fell apart. They acted as if God’s goodness—the goodness of reality—was axiomatic, and took responsibility for their own failure. That’s insanely responsible. But the alternative is to judge reality as insufficient, to criticize Being itself, and to sink into resentment and the desire for revenge.

  If you are suffering—well, that’s the norm. People are limited and life is tragic. If your suffering is unbearable, however, and you are starting to become corrupted, here’s something to think about.

Clean Up Your Life

Consider your circumstances. Start small. Have you taken full advantage of the opportunities offered to you? Are you working hard on your career, or even your job, or are you letting bitterness and resentment hold you back and drag you down? Have you made peace with your brother? Are you treating your spouse and your children with dignity and respect? Do you have habits that are destroying your health and well-being? Are you truly shouldering your responsibilities? Have you said what you need to say to your friends and family members? Are there things that you could do, that you know you could do, that would make things around you better?

  Have you cleaned up your life?

  If the answer is no, here’s something to try: Start to stop doing what you know to be wrong. Start stopping today Don’t waste time questioning how you know that what you’re doing is wrong, if you are certain that it is. Inopportune questioning can confuse, without enlightening, as well as deflecting you from action. You can know that something is wrong or right without knowing why. Your entire Being can tell you something that you can neither explain nor articulate. Every person is too complex to know themselves completely, and we all contain wisdom that we cannot comprehend.

  So, simply stop, when you apprehend, however dimly, that you should stop. Stop acting in that particular, despicable manner. Stop saying those things that make you weak and ashamed. Say only those things that make you strong. Do only those things that you could speak of with honour.

  You can use your own standards of judgment. You can rely on yourself for guidance. You don’t have to adhere to some external, arbitrary code of behaviour (although you should not overlook the guidelines of your culture.

  Life is short, and you don’t have time to figure everything out on your own. The wisdom of the past was hard-earned, and your dead ancestors may have something useful to tell you).

  Don’t blame capitalism, the radical left, or the iniquity of your enemies. Don’t reorganize the state until you have ordered your own experience. Have some humility. If you cannot bring peace to your household, how dare you try to rule a city? Let your own soul guide you. Watch what happens over the days and weeks. When you are at work you will begin to say what you really think. You will start to tell your wife, or your husband, or your children, or your parents, what you really want and need. When you know that you have left something undone, you will act to correct the omission. Your head will start to clear up, as you stop filling it with lies. Your experience will improve, as you stop distorting it with inauthentic actions. You will then begin to discover new, more subtle things that you are doing wrong. Stop doing those, too. After some months and years of diligent effort, your life will become simpler and less complicated. Your judgment will improve. You will untangle your past. You will become stronger and less bitter. You will move more confidently into the future. You will stop making your life unnecessarily difficult. You will then be left with the inevitable bare tragedies of life, but they will no longer be compounded with bitterness and deceit.

  Perhaps you will discover that your now less-corrupted soul, much stronger than it might otherwise have been, is now able to bear those remaining, necessary, minimal, inescapable tragedies. Perhaps you will even learn to encounter them so that they stay tragic—merely tragic—instead of degenerating into outright hellishness. Maybe your anxiety, and hopelessness, and resentment, and anger—however murderous, initially—will recede. Perhaps your uncorrupted soul will then see its existence as a genuine good, as something to celebrate, even in the face of your own vulnerability. Perhaps you will become an ever-more-powerful force for peace and whatever is good.

  Perhaps you will then see that if all people did this, in their own lives, the world might stop being an evil place. After that, with continued effort, perhaps it could even stop being a tragic place. Who knows what existence might be like if we all decided to strive for the best? Who knows what eternal heavens might be established by our spirits, purified by truth, aiming skyward, right here on the fallen Earth?

  Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.





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