“You know I’m bad. I’m bad...Who’s bad?” – lyrics, Michael Jackson
One way or the other… children learn about good or bad. After meeting with his grandma, Malachi says: “I’m a bad boy.” He had learned it most probably in response to something he had done and her comment had generalized to his whole being, causing him to be unhappy with himself, which he may want to disown by passing it on to someone else, who he will see as bad, also, as in “I may be bad, but I’m not the only one”. A “bad boy” self-image can turn to identification with the position of underdog and outsider.
Human nature is the end result of evolution and history. It is best understood in the social context. Behavior always has a purpose (even when it seemingly makes no sense at all). Human consciousness is largely the product of socialization and the maintained maxim “WE are better than…” Socially sanctioned punishment has traditionally been justified by family, school, church, and government for transgressions against the established norms of the majority, and children are taught to take such rules for the truth. They learn language and rules of conduct along with all other aspects of their humanity. A child growing up in Nazi Germany would have internalized the German language along with a certain attitude about Jews and Gypsies, which had to compromise his sense of compassion for these minorities. A child in certain countries would learn that an adulterous woman deserves to be stoned, that it’s OK for an adult man to marry a female child, or that war is normal. We learn what we are taught – initially without discernment. Experiences become encoded in the conscious and unconscious mind, which tends to be permanent, unless examined and changed at a later point in life.
The concept of guilt is basic to human consciousness and has been addressed extensively by religious and other theories, which assume a position of right versus wrong or good versus bad, postulate it as truth, and then further assume a right for punishment or revenge, which is often much more severe or cruel than the original action or transgression. Society rewards compliance and punishes transgressions from the norm. The truth can get distorted – and the victims can get blamed. Socially undesirable behavior tends to go hand in hand with poverty, alcoholism, and mental illness. This is the population most punished by society and the prisons are populated with outsiders and underdogs because they cannot defend themselves. Consider if you will that they are survivors. The norms of the majority have often proven questionable and problematic to outsiders and minorities – society often sanctions exploitation and punishes victims. Such concepts can change over time. The Bible maxim “…not more than an eye for an eye…” was meant to limit the execution of socially sanctioned cruel punishment – an important progress at the time.
The churches enforced rules via threat of everlasting punishment in hell, stating that God sees everything. This preceded the differentiation of civil law and was implemented through fear. People were taught to confess, purge, repent, and willingly accept punishment with the understanding that it’s a good idea to get rid of guilt and shame, partially also through handing over their power and money. From a psychological or philosophical perspective the surface of right and wrong is questionable, and the glorified use of punishment is ineffective at best.
Apparently, humans have an innate sense and desire for justice and fairness, which is tied to the most important interest in feeling safe and good about oneself, and also the interest in truth and compassion. The means for that end have usually been punishment. Animal mothers also use a little punishment when they slap their pups, but when examined further, the effects of punishment are unconvincing and questionable – they promote fear, resistance, defiance, and often lifelong resentments along with worse behaviors. Humans are social animals and learn mostly through following role models, especially at a tender age when the brain is developing. Slapping a child to teach them not to slap his brother will not work out very well. Motivation and encouragement work much better. The threat of being hurt disrupts bonding and establishes the concept that love=pain. Intimidated children learn to distrust, hide, and lie. It can be demonstrated that guidance through tender love and care is best, especially when accompanied by encouragement, support, and verbal explanations.
People like to say “Justice has been served” as though a sentence could ever establish justice or fairness. Such ideals have been used to punish the weak, sick, and poor in an attempt to feel safe and move on. In a post-industrialized society where mothers are gone most of the time, children lack guidance and safety, while watching 10000 acts of violence within a few years. The prevalence of obesity, drug addiction, and violence does not come as a surprise at all. This is what children do to self-regulate anxiety and depression from an early age. They succumb to the overwhelming need to numb out, “chill” and be “cool.” In an instable and unsafe environment one doesn’t always get the choice to withdraw and hide. Sometimes it’s about posturing, and sometimes it can be about the choice between becoming a victim or a victimizer. Who’s bad?
Guilt incurs an unpleasant emotional response and thus makes it desirable to erase and disown it. The fact remains that guilt (just like beauty) rests largely in the eyes of the beholder – one tends to see it in others to the degree that it is maintained as a mental construct. One look under the surface shows that people who have been victimized and traumatized tend to internalize the guilt and they also pass it on via blame.
It can happen that aggression is justifiable as in the case of self-defense. It can appear necessary to twist the truth, too, where others are being blamed for one’s own misdemeanors and in order to disown responsibility, as in, “She MADE me do it; I was just following orders; he had to be stopped.” An all-time favorite is the Bible passage, “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” which has been used extensively over the ages to justify child abuse.
Sometimes the learned tools cease to work. Feeling pathetic, alone and ashamed over being broken can feel utterly hopeless and demoralizing and require a steady supply of good dope and Whiskey. Once this solution has been exhausted, it becomes obvious that the chemical solution has its limits… and a mental reorientation becomes necessary. For victims it’s essentially not relevant what happens to the perpetrator, although vindication and vengeance can appear sweet. It is, of course important to receive support and protection from continued abuse. Other than that it’s not at all about the other person – it is of utmost importance to understand that. Once trauma has occurred, it resides WITHIN the mind and body of the victim – and this is the only place where healing can occur.
In her great book “Evil Genes – Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend” Barbara Oakley details the physiology of morality and the genetic predisposition for evil. Understanding an aggressive disposition and the blindness to the suffering of others based on the lack of ability to experience compassion can help with this process. It’s a personal journey. “Forgiveness can be about realizing that the other person is bat-shit crazy” (quote, anonymous). The maintenance of a self-righteous position comes at a prize as it maintains the bond between victim and victimizer. Healing must involve taking one’s spirit back from that connection. There is no other way, even if it’s incest or the Holocaust or any other act of unjustifiable victimization.
In her wonderful book “Why People Don’t Heal” Carolyn Myss relates the story of a “windtalker” – a Navajo Marine who used his native language as an unbreakable radio cypher during WWII. Captured by the Germans, he was tortured by nailing his feet to the floor. After his liberation he came home to his tribe on crutches. They exclaimed, “What happened to you?” He proceeded to answer, “The Germans…” They stopped him, “No, what happened to you?” Again, he wanted to explain, “The Germans…” and again they replied, “No, what happened to YOU?” and he tried to recount his experience, whereupon they told him this: “Your spirit is not with you. A man cannot live without his spirit. You must get your spirit back.” They threw him in the river and instructed him to swim and get his spirit back.
Understand that you do not have the power to undo the past. You do, however, have the power of life in the present moment.
Resentments keep the suffering alive and establish a toxic internal environment – even if the anger is justifiable (which it often is). Maintenance of one’s own superiority and innocence comes at a high price. Healing requires all you got – you got to lick your wounds and do whatever it takes to become whole again. Forgiveness is NOT about justifying or minimizing what has been done. It is NOT about tolerating more abuse or befriending the victimizer. Forgiveness is ultimately an act of self-love and self-care, where one’s own wellbeing takes priority over hostility. Forgiveness is liberation, enabling you to let go of the perpetrator and the past – look forward, move on, and open your hands to receive the present.
“An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” ~ Mohandas Gandhi