We Never Really Know

It is almost impossible for the average, genuinely humane person to comprehend horrendous inhumanity.

We know far less about the people around us than we’d like to believe.

For me, this fact is proven continually by the reactions of friends, family and neighbors when some horrific act is perpetrated by someone in their midst.  Think on it: The recent Nashville Christmas bomber.  The airline pilot who intentionally crashed his planeful of passengers into the Alps. The Unabomber. John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer who played a clown for children’s parties. Each time when these terrifying actions come to light, one reads and hears in news the reactions of the people best acquainted with the alleged destroyer–childhood friends, neighbors, teachers, coworkers, acquaintances: “But he was just such a quiet person. Eccentric, maybe, but just quiet.”  “But she seemed so normal – look at her prom photo; she would never have tortured someone.”  “He never acted  depressed; not at all.”

Then, slowly, significant details and patterns begin to emerge, demonstrating the depth of sickness, the unimaginable mental illness or the soulless center of each of these individuals, and we are all forced to readjust our view of this “healthy”, “everyday”, “normal” person.  We are even (terrifyingly) compelled to readjust our own thinking about ourselves.  We are, after all, average, ordinary people. Does that mean that we…?  Surely we couldn’t possibly ever…. The thought is so frightening that we desperately shunt it aside.

For that reason — because it is so hard for the genuinely human and humane person to comprehend true inhumanity, or to imagine themselves participating in it — protests continue to litter the airwaves.  Old playmates insist,  “But we lived in the same neighborhood growing up.  He had a regular childhood!” “There was nothing in her upbringing to indicate she’d ever grow up to do such a thing. Nothing.”

At these remarks, I can only shake my head. 

No one, no one at all – not child services, nor counselors, nor neighbors, nor extended family members, nor childhood friends, nor even siblings – no one ever has more than the merest glimpse into the reality of another’s childhood.  I recall the smooth façade of normality that my own mother donned like a mask when in the company of others, and I do not doubt that few people realized how very mentally ill she was, or the havoc she created in our home.  And, even in that regard, I know only what I, personally, endured.  I can’t speak to what the others in my family experienced, either good or bad. And I will always be well aware that many of my childhood acquaintances thought my mother the best person, the coolest Mom in the world.

The simple truth is that we all wear false faces, adjusting and gearing our social façade to meet the expectations and needs of those around us and not be thought too strange, too otherly. Sometimes those masks slip.  But for most of us, the loss of our carefully-constructed disguise results in only momentary confusion or embarrassment, and not a descent into demonic acts.

The best psychological and physical science still cannot completely explain what drives some people to horrific behavior. Might it be emotional or chemical imbalance? Was it the result of a bad reaction to psychoactive drugs? Is it genetics, or socialization? Both? Mob mentality? Could it be just a malfunction in brain development?  Or is it all of these, combined with other factors as yet unknown? Some might say that many such people are simply born without a soul, and I suppose that is as good an explanation as any.

Someday, science may piece together the puzzle of these monsters who wear the faces of human beings, and we will understand at last why they became what they are (and, more importantly, perhaps how to prevent it happening ever again.)  But for those of us who live within at least a semblance of normality and humanity, we will probably never comprehend what created the monster.  We will never be able to dwell within their twisted minds.

If you appreciated this essay, you might also like “Epitaph In An Elevator”, which you may find in the Archives from September 28, 2018.

My Kindness Journal

I’ve recently begun keeping what I term a “Kindness Journal”. This isn’t a list of kind or thoughtful things I do for others (although, as a caretaker personality, that list would certainly fill a page or two).  No, this is a journal about kind things I do for myself.

Finding fault with myself has been almost an hourly pastime since I was an adolescent. Sometimes this is a helpful trait, sparking new levels of maturity. You weren’t as supportive as you could have been, the Critic in My Mind tells me.  You should not have said that. You should have done this; not have done that.  Was that really necessary? Did you actually listen to your own tone of voice? You were thoughtless and you need to apologize.

When I’m in a rational frame of mind, these self-criticisms are benign and constructive. Questioning my motives and behavior drives me to at least try to improve myself.

The Constructive Critic also reminds me that we most dislike in others the same behaviors that we despise in ourselves. Although I would challenge that concept on the basis of its being a generality, I accept that it’s often true.  The Constructive Critic has become adept at confronting me when I am irritated or furious over something that another person has said or done. Am I actually upset, I ask myself, only because I make similar remarks? Behave in the same manner?  Isn’t that really why I’m angry?  Again, when it comes to moments like these, the Constructive Critic is a genuinely helpful personality quirk.  Uncomfortable, but helpful.

But for me (and I suppose for a lot of people), the Constructive Critic all too often descends into a cruel and vicious faultfinder; a tyrant who sits in judgment from a high throne of hypercritical conviction. Speaking in the voices of actual detractors and censors from my past, the narrator which I term the Nazi Critic descends into bullying and cruelty. You were always plain; now you’re just plain ugly, the Nazi Critic declaims. Stupid bitch; why did you do that? No wonder no one ever loved you—I mean, who could?!

It’s hard to turn off the Nazi Critic in its evil mode of psychological warfare. My emotions spiral downward with each fresh self-administered slap on the ego.  I think of this as the emotional equivalent of a medieval penitent scourging herself across the shoulders with a cat o’ nine tails. Just as the clawed whip tore into flesh, so the Nazi Critic’s malicious words rip apart my self-worth and confidence, strewing them like the dead across the battlefield of my own soul.  The results of this clash soon become physically visible upon my face, in my bearing.

And so to combat the occasional incursions of the Nazi Critic, I’ve begun my Kindness Journal. Each evening I list a few things (sometimes very few) that I’ve done to simply be nice to myself.  Often it’s something physical: a good, long walk, or a relaxing bath with lavender salts instead of a hurried shower.  Occasionally it’s doing something that I find truly difficult, but rewarding, such as saying “No” to a request that I really don’t want to fulfill, all the while reminding myself that it’s better to refuse a request than to agree and nourish resentment.  Sometimes kindness to myself means that I must state plainly but calmly that I disagree with another’s viewpoint—something which I find difficult and scary.  Rarely, it’s standing up for myself, as in those instances when I have to remind someone that they owe me money and I expect repayment.  Those and many other things are now entries in my Kindness Journal.

I realize now that I have spent years of my life when I was at my lowest ebb, hoping and wishing that someone, anyone, would be kind to me, all the while believing the brutal words of the Nazi Critic—my own mind, twisted and tormented, telling me in the voices of cruel people from my past that I am worthless and ugly and useless and uneducated, undeserving of anyone’s attention or affection or courtesy or kindness.

So it is time, at last, to be kind to myself, gentle with myself, courteous toward myself.

It isn’t always easy. But perhaps by writing a few words every day in my Kindness Journal, I can lay the Nazi Critic to rest at last.

The Day the Vacuum Rose Up to Smite Me

Sometimes it just takes a smack on top of the head.

Curing depression, I mean. Or perhaps I mean, restoring the spirit.

I’ve suffered greatly from depression throughout much of my life. I began seeing a therapist when I was only 18, fearful that I was succumbing to suicidal tendencies.  Therapy and antidepressant drugs would eventually consume many hours of my life over the succeeding decades, as I struggled to escape the depression that imbued my every waking moment, robbing the world of color, leaving me deadened and numbed and drained.

Eventually I concluded that using the antidepressant drugs long-term did me more harm than good, and that the benefit I derived from talk therapy was directly proportional to the wisdom (not the training) of the therapist. Slowly I discovered that journaling, meditation, and exercise, combined with careful diet and nutrition, did me considerably more good than any drug, and sometimes even more than the guidance provided me by a counselor.  I learned that loneliness was infinitely less terrifying than being in a bad relationship.  I discovered that by sheer force of will I could step out of my self-defined limitations and be more than my childhood trauma had made me.  And finally I discovered that  investigating the wealth of information hidden in my own dreams was endlessly more valuable to curing my mental state than any medicine could ever be.

But it took me years to learn these lessons and to finally (as one of my own dreams so clearly displayed) claw my way, hand over hand, out of that deep, black well into a night sky – a sky perhaps just as black, but lit here and there with the sparkle of stars and moonlight.

Life, I have finally learned, is not always about feeling the sun on one’s face. Some depression and certainly a lot of sadness is normal.  Pain, in the guise of loss and death, quarrels and deception and betrayal and cruelty, is always just around the most sunlit of corners.  Life itself is often a struggle down an unknown path in the darkness, illuminated only by hope and trust.  It is, as I once wrote in a poem, to “….believe the cry of morning’s bird who knows the sun will rise”.

And all of this knowledge became the most clear to me on the day the Universe smacked me atop the head.

I was, perhaps, not at my lowest ebb, but in pretty bad condition – so bad that the smallest and silliest of things were magnified a thousand fold. And so I found myself running the vacuum one Saturday afternoon, all the while sobbing because I realized that my teenage daughter had specifically asked me to make chili for dinner that night, and I had forgotten.  I hadn’t even bought the ingredients.  She was due home any minute, and I hadn’t begun cooking.  I was, I said to myself in self-pitying despair, a completely rotten mother.  My daughter hardly ever asked me for anything, and I’d totally forgotten her simple request.

It was ridiculous, of course, but depressive despair does not recognize ridiculous. My thought processes seemed, at that moment, quite logical.

And it was at this point in my defeatist maunderings that the belt on the vacuum came loose and it lost power. I unplugged it and plunked myself down on the floor to fix the machine just as my daughter came in from work.

She saw that I was crying and knelt down beside me to ask what was wrong. So as I replaced the vacuum belt I tried to describe my miserable mental state, telling her that I could not see why I, the most useless person on the face of the planet, was still alive, when overseas so many brave young men and women were dying in yet another horrific war.  As I pushed the sweeper back into its upright position, I put my hands over my face and wept.

And the arm of the upright vacuum, never steady, fell down and thunked me on the head.

Sheer slapstick.

I would pay good money, now, to have a video of my daughter’s face at that moment. Eyes rounding, lips pursed in an effort not to laugh out loud, she grabbed the sweeper arm, and said, “Oh, that’s…terrible!” — but her voice betrayed her intense effort not to burst into roaring laughter.  And I started to weep harder, only to break down into chuckles myself.

And somehow, at that moment, my final healing from lifelong depression began. Not, of course, that I experienced some miraculous transformation; rather, I came to a recognition of the fact that my feelings were not logical, not coherent, and that the real problem was my habitual thought processes.  That, I realized, was something I could work on.

All it took to bring me to that recognition was a good, hard smack on the head.

As a therapeutic principle, I do not recommend it.

But for me, it worked.