Monday, November 21, 2011

Feeling a little hateful lately?

I don't know about you, but I've been feeling a little hateful over the past few days. In some ways, it's ironic. I just wrote a blog post complaining about a celebrity psychiatrist's hateful response to a campaign against hate. In other ways, my hateful response over the past couple of days is very human.

Brian Nguyen
I watched with horror as I saw images of UC Davis students being sprayed with chemical weapons. The sounds of the crowd shrieking combined with the very powerful and now iconic imagery of young students (children, really) being overpowered by a single swaggering police officer shaking a can full of  chemical weapons. 

Looking at the chemical wielding police officer I become filled with rage. He does not appear scared, threatened, or otherwise in harms way. He appears to want to be in control. He appears to want to exert power over the young men and women. Maybe he wants to feel good. Maybe, in the energized thrill of the moment, the thin line of civility some of us cultivate disappeared. Maybe his own personal rage, hate, and sadism came unglued. 

I look at him and I'm angry. I look at him and I want to see him punished. I want to see him punished because I want to know there is justice in the world. I want to know that we live in a civil society, where inconvenient protests happen, and people without power can use the transformative tactics of non-violent protest to push an overlooked viewpoint into the minds and hearts of the public.

I want to believe. I want to believe I am not like him.

I don't want to believe is the murderous rage that wells up within me. While I might like to ignore what I'm feeling inside, I can't. I'm transported, right now, back in time to an interview I had with the director of training for what was to become my post-doctoral fellowship. He asked me many difficult, challenging, frustrating questions. Two provocative ones come to mind. Both were questions that asked the same thing of me.
"You elected not to wear a tie to your interview with me today. I'm wondering what you think that says to me about you, and what you had hoped that it would say to me about you. I'm going to tell you this now, Jason. If you don't have an answer for that question we'll end the interview right here. If you don't have an answer to that question there is no place for you in this postdoc."
I survived that question. Then he came up with this one.
"Tell me about a time you experienced murderous rage toward a patient."
Joe asked these two questions for two very specific reasons. What's germane here is his second reason. After working closely with him for my post-doc, I learned that one of the most important things to him was that his post-docs know themselves. He wanted to know that I could look at myself. He wanted to know that I could look deep, not turn away, and openly take in the totality of my experience. Even open up to the dark, twisty, and scary places.

So I take in my experience. I don't look away. I watch the video and I allow the rage to pass through me. I sit without movement and experience what is that I am experiencing.

I am moved. Are you? Where are you moved to?

Megan Garber at the Nieman Journalism Lab wrote a smart article called Image as Interest: How the Pepper Spray Cop Could Change the Trajectory of Occupy Wall Street. Megan reminds us that Susan Sontag argues that photographs are
"invitations--to deduction, speculation, fantasy." They invite empathy, and, with it, investment.
 Take a few moments to look at some iconic, moving, and difficult images. Think of them as an invitation.

What do you see? It is easy for me to have great compassion and empathy for aspects of each of this pictures. Thich Quang Duc self-immolated himself on June 11, 1963 to protest the brutal repression of Buddhists by Catholics. "Tank Man" standing alone before the repressive regime of Communist China. Kim Phuc, running down a road after a South Vietnamese Air Force napalm attack. General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan executing the Viet Cong soldier Nguyễn Văn Lém. Dorli Rainey, 81 years old, pepper sprayed by police in the United States. Two nameless boys (one 18, one under 18) executed for engaging in gay sex in Iran.

And then there is Lt. John Pike. His swagger. His pepper spray. I can have compassion for the young men and women being assaulted with a chemical spray. Can I have compassion for the police officer?

Many see this image and are invited to anger and hate. I am, too. Compassion? Why would I want to do that?

Compassion and nonviolence help us to see the enemy's point of view,to hear their questions, to know their assessment of ourselves.
For from their point of view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses
of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit
from the wisdom of the brothers and sisters who are called the opposition.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

I think Dr. King was inviting us to look at our own shadow. Our own dark places. The places we find unbearable. When we look closely, we can protect ourselves from the darkness. We can stop our own slide into sadism. We can be transformed. We can be more.

Do it for yourself. Look deep and find your own shadow. Choose love. Choose compassion.


  1. Thank you for this important post. I usually gag when someone writes "I am crying as I write this," because it sounds so twee. But actually, I am crying. In the past few weeks I've felt diminished and made hopeless by what's happening in the world, having had my nose rubbed in it by the attacks on Occupy movements and some of the commentary on it.

    I know that cop won't be treated in the same way that a mentally ill person who might pepper spray people waiting at a bus stop will be treated, because cops are never properly sanctioned.

    I know Thich Quang Duc and Tank Man made incredible statements that changed nothing.

    I believe I see resignation in the two nameless boys, and part of me resonates with that. Their miserable ordeal is coming to an end.

    I remember, too, that Dr King was murdered and that for too many of us his life has been reduced to Inspirational Comments.

    Was it Goethe who said something like "There is no act so vile that I cannot imagine myself repeating it"? This has been a touchstone for me: I am as capable as General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan and Lt. John Pike of gross abuse of power, as is everyone else. Given the right circumstances all of us will perform disgusting acts. That gives me a small but vital life ring to hold on to in these increasingly stormy seas. And God knows, it getting more difficult to hold on to. Being empathic with what seems like endless abuse is exhausting.

    My Shadow is a place of power, at first glance a shrieking, lunatic place but a little deeper there is strength, capacity, stillness, a kind of truth. I retreat there for peace and authenticity. Saying that I could never do what the torturer does, I simply can't imagine what makes a person put on a uniform and attack other people, is a lie. Is inauthentic.

    Authenticity is bloody hard work and often painful. But life is richer, more thoughtful with it, and hopefully it is a path to wisdom.

    Thanks once more.

  2. Got chills several times as I read your post.

    One of the ironies I find in the ways that we big brained primates respond to others is that we rarely take advantage of what our big brain allows us to do- self-reflect.

    Exerting control, inflicting pain and behaving aggressively can be rewarding to us. In some situations these behaviors might save our lives. But far too often they are not tactics we need to employ to ensure our survival (though we seem easily led to believe this to be the case).

    There is no shortage in history, both past and the history being created today, of people who were able to perpetrate seemingly unimaginable cruelties on others with little hesitation. I for one feel resigned to this fact.

    Instead of pondering the horror and sadness of this I'd really rather hear why you didn't wear a tie.

  3. Clare,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment. Authenticity is, as you said, bloody hard. You said it so beautifully--that a power can come forth out of the shadow. When we recognize the darkness in others is in us, we can learn to make other choices.

  4. Nice to see you outside of Twitter, Debbie. I'm reminded of Temple Grandin saying that "nature is cruel but we don't have to be."

    Nature, of course, isn't cruel. It is our human construction of nature that is cruel. Animals do what they need to do to survive. Humans are a much different story. I like to think that's what Temple was getting at. The very essence of what makes us human--having a choice--gives us both the potential of unbelievable cruelty and unbelievable elevation.

    I hope, in the resignation of realizing there where always be cruelty, this is also the realization that there is always a choice.

    As for why I didn't wear a tie. Now that would make for a good blog post.