Thursday, July 26, 2018

Philosophy Thursday: Good Men, Bad Men, Anger, and Thich Nhat Hanh

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh is in some ways a better human being than I am. Whenever I read his work, I am moved by his dedication to peace and compassion, and try to incorporate his teachings in my daily life. I strive to be a bit more like him.

But not too much like him. To put it bluntly, I'm an angrier person than Nhat Hanh, and I'm OK with that. He strives to surpass anger, to rise above it, while I—paraphrasing Capt. James T. Kirk—need my anger.

In his excellent book 'Being Peace', Nhat Hanh shares the following story:
After the Vietnam War, many people wrote to us in Plum Village. We received hundreds of letters each week from the refugee camps in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines, hundreds each week. It was very painful to read them, but we had to be in contact. We tried our best to help, but the suffering was enormous, and sometimes we were discouraged. It is said that half the boat people fleeing Vietnam died in the ocean; only half arrived at the shores of Southeast Asia. 
There are many young girls, boat people, who were raped by sea pirates. Even though the United Nations and many countries tried to help the government of Thailand prevent that kind of piracy, sea pirates continued to inflict much suffering on the refugees. One day, we received a letter telling us about a young girl on a small boat who was raped by a Thai pirate. 
She was only twelve, and she jumped into the ocean and drowned herself. 
When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we can't do that. In my meditation, I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, I would now be the pirate. There is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I can't condemn myself so easily. In my meditation, I saw that many babies are born along the Gulf of Siam, hundreds every day, and if we educators, social workers, politicians, and others do not do something about the situation, in twenty-five years a number of them will become sea pirates. That is certain. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we might become sea pirates in twenty-five years. If you take a gun and shoot the pirate, you shoot all of us, because all of us are to some extent responsible for this state of affairs.
While I certainly admire Nhat Hanh's ability to see the situation from the pirate's point of view, and can acknowledge the role of environment in shaping the pirate's life, this doesn't change my anger. When Nhat Hanh writes "If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we can't do that..." I can't help but think, "Yes, we can. And should."

Perhaps Nhat Hanh is right that if I "had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, I would now be the pirate. There is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I can't condemn myself so easily." I actually can condemn myself so easily. If I try to hurt an innocent, I deserve to be stopped. Think of the horror movie trope about the man bitten by a werewolf, who then turns into a werewolf himself and terrorizes the community. The cursed man, unable to bring himself to commit suicide, begs others to kill or imprison him. Or, to look at things more scientifically, consider the fact that brain tumors and injuries can cause serious behavioral changes. There have even been incidences of brain tumors being linked to pedophilia. Taking that as an example, if I ever develop a tumor and it compels me to try to rape a child, I hope someone stops me, even if it means killing me.

I can't help but think of the fascinating graphic novel 'My Friend Dahmer' by John "Derf" Backderf. It's the true story about growing up and going to school with future serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. Even though Backderf shows some sympathy for the young Dahmer, in the book's afterward he clearly states
It's my belief that Dahmer didn't have to wind up a monster, that all those people didn't have to die horribly, if only the adults in his life hadn't been so inexplicably, unforgivably, incomprehensibly clueless and/or indifferent. Once Dahmer kills, however—and I can't stress this enough—my sympathy for him ends. He could have turned himself in after that first murder. He could have put a gun to his head. Instead he, and he alone, chose to become a serial killer and spread misery to countless people. 
I absolutely agree with that. There are times for compassion, and there are times for justice.

It's important to state that I don't consider Nhat Hanh's position to be wrong or unethical. I actually find it admirable. Quite possibly, if I could achieve his level of benevolent compassion, I would be a happier, "better" person. I just wouldn't be me.

To quote a great PiL song, "Anger is an energy." It motivates me. I wouldn't be a martial artist if it weren't for anger. I wouldn't teach self-defense classes if it weren't for anger. At the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, I think in my own small way I make the world a better place by teaching people to protect themselves while at the same time being able to protect them myself if necessary. Breaking someone's knee while simultaneously slamming face-down into the ground isn't very nice, but there are times it is necessary.

In season one of 'True Detective,' Matthew McConaughey's character Rush Cohle is asked "Do you wonder ever if you're a bad man?" He responds, "No. I don't wonder. World needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door." The show's creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto further elaborated on that concept in an interview: "Regarding bad men being necessary to stop the other bad men, that’s probably more true than I’d like it to be, but the point exists outside of gender: You need physically capable, courageous, and potentially violent people to deal with the violent, dangerous people."

Again, I absolutely agree. Compared to Thich Nhat Hanh, I am something of a bad man. And I totally accept that.