Our reactions to events like the church shooting in South Carolina say a lot about the complexity of our feeling and thinking about the world, especially about the world outside our own personal experience. I admit I’m tired of people describing individuals as evil, laws as stupid, tragedies as senseless. To me, the most evil, stupid, and senseless thing about all of this is the way we simplify why and how events like this happen.
Unfortunately, just as we tend to oversimplify the problem, other we also tend to oversimplify its solution. And this is not limited to people with bad intentions. I attended a yoga workshop two days after the shooting. It is customary for the instructor and students to bow and say namaste, a Sanskrit word which means “I bow to the divine in you”, as a way of beginning and closing the yoga practice. At the start of class that evening, the instructor spoke briefly about how acknowledging the divine in each other would help people to fix the problems of the world.
I love the gesture and its meaning, and I imagine at some point I would have whole-heartedly agreed that the underlying philosophy could change the world. At this point, I don’t know if it is necessary, but I do believe it is certainly not sufficient. Beyond just acknowledging the divine in others, we must also acknowledge the demons in ourselves. As readily as we are willing to connect with the potential of the higher self, we must connect with the potential of the lower self; as much as we can identify with the victim, we must have the experience and imagination to identify with the perpetrator as well.
It is not enough for us to understand how someone else could do terrible things. It is essential that we understand how relatively easy it is for us, someone we love, or anyone we know to become the kind of person who could do things as equally terrible. It would take different circumstances for different people, but the possibility is always there. A biochemical imbalance in your brain, a sequence of devastating events in your personal life, an increase in your association with negative influences. Any number of factors, alone or in combination, over the short or long term, have the potential to change us in unpredictable ways. Are the majority of people who do hateful things innately different from us? I doubt it. Never mind that, in many subtle or indirect ways, we already do similar things in our everyday lives.
This is not a matter of excusing or forgiving someone’s actions. It is a matter of acknowledging the complexity of individual, collective, and systemic forces across various scales of time that continuously affect/effect human cognition and behavior. Even though we don’t know if or how we can ever address all of the human-centered challenges of the world, our best hope is to see these issues for what they truly are. And that requires us to face ourselves in the mirror.