When my compassion for a difficult person begins to run low, I allow myself to wonder what he or she was like as a child. I try to picture them at the age an unknown trauma may have occurred, and ask myself how it may have contributed to the behaviors that make our interactions challenging now. Then I try to respond as if I’m talking to that child, hurt, angry, and confused, rather than the belligerent, defensive adult standing in front of me.
I’ve spent the past week in graduate school focused on trauma-related mental health disorders, particularly those affecting children. By the end of the week I need to finish reading a book on the failings of the current mental health system and the double-edged sword of deinstitutionalization. And in my long drives from one client to another, I’ve been listening to Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion, in which the title essay dissects 1960s counter culture in Haight Ashbury.
These were the concepts occupying space in my head when I woke up this morning and my phone greeted me with a news alert about the death of Charles Manson. The article included a biographical summary - of a man who had no family, who committed his first dangerous acts by the age of eight, who begged, as an adult, not to be released from prison because he didn’t know where to go.
Granted, Charles Manson has always been peripheral to me, the murders a thing that happened a long time ago. I am of the generation for whom Manson was a twisted historical figure, not a courtroom news story; the first reference I ever knew to Haight Ashbury was in the form of a Nirvana song. I have never experienced the visceral reaction a baby boomer would have to the story of the Manson murders. When I first learned of them, I found them nauseating and unsettling, but they did not rattle my worldview.
By the time I learned of the Manson murders, violence was familiar.
Likewise, I had heard before of Manson’s bizarre court testimony, but never read it: “These children that come at you with knives, they are your children. You taught them; I didn’t teach them.” Horrifying, yes? Let’s strike that from the record please. Keep these irrational thoughts to yourself, Mr. Manson. Nobody wants to be implicated in your bloodbath. No, dude, you’re just crazy. Shut up.
Except . . . there’s that nagging fear that he might be right.
80 years ago, Charles Manson was a three-year-old boy whom nobody protected. Blame my coursework, blame my bleeding heart, blame my obsessive need to make sense of the tragic and nonsensical, but I cannot write off that crazy unstable man’s accusations. These children were our children. They were teenage runaways - from good families, yes, sure, as far as we know. They were children, many of them privileged, who grew up in a society in which some people were disposable - including the fatherless son of a prostitute whose early years indicated a slew of behavioral problems, but nobody stepped in.
When Liam was four he asked me, “Does God make the bad guys?”
I answered, as any good recovering evangelical would, that there aren’t really good guys and bad guys. That we’re all people, with some good and some bad in each of us. That God loves each of us, when we’re good and when we’re bad, and knowing just how much God loves us makes us want to be good like God.
What I did not say at the time - and maybe I just didn’t want to believe it - is that sometimes, we help make the bad guys.
That every person must choose for him or herself which direction to go.
That ultimately we all have the capacity, hidden beneath our fears, our anger, and our selfishness, to choose what’s right and connects us with the divine.
But that when we cast aside a three-year-old boy as unimportant, as a drain on society, as a person who shouldn’t exist, as unworthy of our care, we make his choice to do evil a much easier one.
And so I’d like to humbly suggest, as we attempt to mitigate our holiday spending with a couple of cans to the food pantry, as we think maybe we’ll serve at a soup kitchen for a couple hours Thursday morning so we can enjoy our Thursday afternoon excesses guilt-free, that we sit with this one for a minute. That before we celebrate the death of a terrifying, volatile, evil cult leader, we mourn the life of a little boy protected and loved by no one.
Because here’s the thing: I don’t want to think about this. I want to clean out the crock pot and thaw the cranberries and mutter about someone using up the nutmeg and complain about the crowds at Market Basket. I want to sit down with my family this week and agree not to discuss healthcare or gun control and just all celebrate and be nice and grateful for what we have. I want to eat pie. And honestly, I am going to do all those things, and I am going to enjoy every minute of it.
This is what we all want, right? To relish the fleeting holiday feeling of safe and cozy love, to pour a warm drink and plug in the twinkly lights that push back the darkness, at least a little.
Because to do otherwise is uncomfortable. Like any other privileged middle class white woman, I would much rather focus on the pretty twinkling lights than think about the darkness persisting beyond their reach. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it - until the lights stay warm and cozy in our own homes, and let those in the darkness outside fend for themselves.
Charles Manson, before the swastika on his forehead, before the batshit crazy helter skelter terror, was a little boy left in that darkness. We left him there.
I signal right, take the off ramp, steel myself as I wait at the light. Once more into the pain. Once more into the sadness. My husband, an ex-military survivalist, is fond of the quote “Once more into the fray.” I hear his whisper as I prepare to see my next client, to go once more into the fray and the sadness.
A few weeks ago, I had to testify against a former client. Only when I was seated on the witness stand and was peppered with questions did I realize how gut-wrenching the experience can be. To sit and state, for the record, truth and whole truth sworn, that this client has failed. This one can’t manage to do what they’ve been asked to do. If one cares about their work - if one cares about the people for whom one does the work - it’s nauseating. I drove home shaking. That evening I consulted with my cohort, who validated my stress.
“I cried the first time I had to do it.”
“I cry every time.”
“I can never sleep the night before.”
It was cathartic, this sharing of the sadness.
As I drove to the courthouse the second morning, I passed an older woman, ever so slowly moving down the sidewalk. “Walking” would not be an accurate term. She stood with a walker, and every footstep appeared to be agony. Each small movement lasted perhaps 20 or 25 seconds. I sat able-bodied in the car, and the slowness and the pain in her movements nearly brought me to tears. This world just hurts too much, I thought, as the light turned green and I drove past. It was only three blocks later, the image of her laborious footsteps a sad GIF playing in my head, that it occurred to me - she was not in a wheelchair. Had she been immobile and reliant on a device, I would not have given her existence a second thought. It was the struggle against the pain, not the surrender to it, that had caught my attention.
When I heard the news out of Texas on Sunday, this same sadness swept over me again. I did not bubble with anger, as I did after Sandy Hook or Las Vegas or Boston. I did not feel the despair and the disorientation that struck when I was younger, after 9/11 and Oklahoma City. This time, just sadness. Too much. This hurts too much.
This time, I did not respond with solutions, with angry declarations about necessary changes to gun control or mental health treatment - all warranted, but they felt wrong. Off. Callous. Premature.
I am a fixer of things, my husband and my best friend and my children and my family and my clients will tell you. Problem? Pain? Here, let me offer my suggestions. Here’s a band-aid. Let’s make it so we don’t have to see this sadness, m’kay? Let’s just make that go away. Quickly, please.
It’s only natural that when we see pain and suffering, we want to make it go away. This is, perhaps, one of the better parts of human nature.
But on Sunday afternoon, as the darkness descended early, the sadness felt right. The country was hurt and crying again. Children were lost to violence in a building where they came to learn about love and hope, about the someday restoration of all things. In the quiet, rainy night, allowing my heart to break open over this circumstance felt like the only appropriate response.
It would be wrong to stay there, I think. Hopes and prayers and warm thoughts and the world moving on would be just as unacceptable as offering a pat policy solution to make myself feel in control.
But - maybe - we have to mourn before we can make real change. Maybe our rush to fix rather than feel is an impediment to lasting solutions.
Personally, when I rush to fix, whether it’s for clients or loved ones, it’s an effort to maintain my safety and security. It is entirely self-motivated. I don’t like the idea of you being homeless, so let’s find you a place to live. It’s unsettling to see you so depressed. Here, take these pills. You relapsed? Let’s get you into a program today.
Don’t feel ready? Don’t care.
Do they need housing? Do they need medication, and counseling, and treatment? Unequivocally, yes. But when I try to fix too soon, so I can feel accomplished and return to my baseline of comfort and security, there are underlying problems I might miss. There are bigger issues in play, that I choose to ignore, because I feel overwhelmed and powerless to solve them.
Rather, I am powerless to solve them.
What I have learned, in the aftermath of nauseating court testimony and the image of that woman on the sidewalk, is that this sense of powerlessness can be appropriate and necessary. That tears and silence are, for a brief time, just the response that’s needed.
I do believe in the someday restoration of all things. I do not believe that restoration, and love and hope, became any less true for children in Texas this weekend, though it certainly feels a long way off. I believe, to my core, that we are responsible for bringing about that restoration, in partnership with Something / Someone larger and more powerful and more capable of restoration than any of us could be on our own.
And in the meantime, I do believe in policy reforms. This was, clearly, a preventable tragedy. The anger is justified. But let me not rush through the process to a half-assed restoration and a handful of policy changes without first being in the sadness. As the pain comes in, real and undeniable, let that motivate us for change.
Let us start by going into the fray.