I’ve been a news hound since right about 9/11, but the uncovering of horrific crimes in recent weeks has made me rethink that policy. I’m finding some of these stories so disturbing that I’m considering shutting it all off altogether. It’s taken me a little while to get at what’s really troubling me. It could be that I’m no better than them.
Boston bomber. Cleveland rapist. Which is the worse crime? The 19-year-old who in a few moments killed three people (including a child), maimed dozens, and threw a city into panic mode, or the 52-year-old who kidnapped, tortured, raped, and caused the miscarriages of three people for ten years?
Both of these crimes are beyond the pale. How do we measure the evil? By the harm caused? By the number of people affected? By cataloging every single moment of pain, fear, anger, hatred, and loss their actions caused? Or are we also horrified by the depth the perpetrators allowed themselves to sink into darkness? How far did they have to sink to become the kind of person who could do these deeds?
Yet, if they are that sunk in darkness, are they not as trapped and destroyed as their victims? I think my own revulsion comes not so much from facing the effects of the deeds, tragic as they are, but from trying to understand the mindset of those who would do them.
We assume they sunk there by choice. We assume, therefore, that we have the right to punish, to wreak revenge, to cause the same amount of suffering that they did. But can we ever fully punish such deeds? And even if we can, would we not be going as far down the path of darkness as they have?
I’m asking myself how many times in life I’ve allowed myself to go down the path of darkness—so far down, that I hurt myself. So far down, that I hurt others. I’ve definitely gone far enough down to lose my empathy in my obsession with whatever wrong or hurt had eclipsed my life for that moment. How hard was it, on those occasions, for me to get out of that darkness? Hard. It would require not just sheer strength of will but also a shift in my perception of myself. I had to redefine myself as in the light. I had to remember that the overall reality of my life is to be in the light. This was often very difficult. And, I had the mental tools, some strong support, and a basic faith that light was where I belonged. For those who do not have those tools, I wonder how hard, if not impossible, it is to pull out of it.
A couple weeks ago, I had a fight with the man I’m dating. It was over something trivial, something temporary in the process of getting to know each other. But I allowed it to get under my skin. I allowed myself to sink so far into my anger that I did not notice how I was punishing him with my coldness. I felt completely justified as I stewed over what was the briefest of moments in an otherwise strong relationship. It took several hours for me to snap out of it. Besides just cooling off, I had to notice that I was going someplace emotionally that I didn’t want to be. I had to choose to turn around, to remember love. Then, when I could focus on him again and empathize with his feelings, I found out I’d hurt him. It wasn’t until then that I could experience and express the appropriate sorrow for my actions. And only then, could we finally make progress together on the issue.
But what if I’d stayed in my anger? What if I’d stayed in that darkness? It was a choice, after all. I could have. Would I have been any better than the perpetrators in Boston and Cleveland?
The perpetrators of Boston and Cleveland sunk into darkness and chose to stay there. We have that same choice every day.
Notice the darkness. Turn on the light.