If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the color of the evening sun
Tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away
But something in our minds will always stay
The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.
I’ve seen the new Les Miserables for the second time now. The musical is an exploration of the loss of innocence…of what happens when the dreams we dream as children are torn apart, when we are asked the most perplexing question who do we choose to be when our backs are against the wall. I’ve been talking with many clients recently about their wish for life to be easier or for family members to be kinder. We’ve been talking about the anxiety of facing the fact that life isn’t easy and family members are not kind.
I met a wife once, desperate and miserable after four decades of marriage. Her husband had had multiple affairs, countless internet liaisons, and he let her know he had no intention of stopping. She preferred to deny what was right in front of her by asking me directly to tell her he couldn’t help it. She was hoping I might call him a wounded child or a sufferer of mental illness – ANYTHING but cruel. She wanted the darkness of her life to remain invisible, even unto herself. She wanted it to be invisible as much as her husband did. Her unwillingness to face the fact that her husband intended harm made her party to the problem.
Most of us, like this woman, get stuck in the anxiety or fear that facing cruelty in our very own families would be more difficult than keeping our heads down and playing it safe. But would it? In the short term, yes. In the long term, if we do not confront ourselves and our fears, we may end up with bigger consequences than we bargained for and much less time to work it all out.
But our nature prefers homeostasis, safety, and security. Pretending the dark side doesn’t really exist becomes necessary for us to keep the façade going. It’s in the fabric of our families and our culture. We are admonished frequently to look on the bright side (and ignore the subtle yet vicious jabs your spouse throws out). Be grateful for what you have (and pretend the terrible ways your mother treats you aren’t so terrible). You must live life on your terms (even if those terms short change or mess with those closest to you). With our culture’s (and often times our family’s) insistence on ignoring and pretending and covering up, dealing effectively with life becomes infinitely more difficult. Why? Because darkness cannot be fought if it is invisible.
This penchant for invisibility happens on a mass scale – the Catholic Church, the boy scouts, slavery, apartheid, the Holocaust, etc. – and it happens on a smaller domestic scale – emotional manipulation, mind-screwing, revenge. In Les Miserables, Inspector Javert covered up his evil by hiding behind the law, pummeling his victims with an insistence they follow the letter of the law while he ignored the complexities and dilemmas of human suffering and poverty. In families we cover up our manipulations and cruelties in a multitude of ways. Pummeling our spouses for sex is hidden under the guise of meeting each other’s needs. Never rising to the occasion or making a decision (in parenting or with in-laws or for where to go to dinner) is hidden under the guise of communication problems.
We are a species that values the shiny and beautiful over the not so glamorous genuine and substantive. We are all repeatedly called to action every time human tragedy or atrocity occurs. We are called to stop dithering around and to call cruel intent or lack of integrity what it is. Adam Lanza wasn’t a victim of mental illness. He knew what he was doing. Would December 14th have been a different day if someone in his life had looked directly at the darkness around and in him? Maybe. Maybe…
Maybe if we can find a way to face the dark sides of our selves, our lives, and our relationships, perhaps we have a chance of changing the bigger, more violent acts in our world.
There will always be those among us who commit terrible acts of violence, just as there will always be those of us who wish to fight against it, or at the very least, like Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, those of us who will choose to live a life apart, a life without violence and filled with love. We cannot obliterate evil, but we can stop pretending we live in a safe world filled with people who never really intend harm. It starts at home. It starts with you.