I am a pretty sensitive person. I’ve always been that way. When I was a kid, I cried all the time. Everything felt so sad, whether it happened to me or to someone else. I had a hard time understanding why people did the things they did or how, once they did the thing, they could go on without understanding the repercussions, without completely breaking down. I guess it’s no surprise that I’m still like that. I have spent years trying to hide it. I mean, once you’re a “crybaby” people tend to assume you’re unstable or that your emotions are superficial. You learn pretty quickly to do your weeping in secret.
But what if it is not you? What if it is the world that is unstable and superficial? What if you are just the kind of person who finds it difficult and overwhelming to live in such a world? I make no claims here that I am somehow superior or deep, just that I need, for my own sanity, to entertain the idea that my reactions to hurtful things, people, and events might be normal.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about our shared humanity. Actually, not lately. I’ve always had this on my mind. It’s always there, lurking behind every other thought. But lately it’s been more to the fore as I read about shootings back home in the states or watch our president mock people. One response to these tragedies and general assholery is to deny the humanity of the perpetrator. I don’t mean the condemnation that such people rightly deserve. I mean the actual stripping of human status from a person who has done a terrible thing. This makes sense in a lot of ways and I don’t automatically judge people for it. It’s an emotional protection. It allows us to release anger while protecting ourselves from the consequences. We can abuse, and even kill that which isn’t human.
I experienced this with my friend Coolie. Coolie was a multiple murderer on death row. He had committed a terrible, terrible crime, the worst of which was that he murdered children. People hated him. Loathed him. They called him a monster. When people found out about my relationship with Coolie, they assumed that I somehow overlooked his crimes, decided they weren’t that serious, or excused them. To those people, it was the only way I could possibly maintain a friendship with him. Others thought that I must be very generous, that I was able to “love the sinner and hate the sin”. The truth was rather more complex. Or simple. The truth was that I never even tried to reconcile the Coolie who dished with me about Game of Thrones with the man who had murdered children. I never tried because it didn’t seem necessary. Coolie was a human being who murdered a family. He was not a monster to me because that implies that human beings don’t kill each other. But they do.
I experienced this again more recently with another very dear friend, someone I really admired and had missed since moving to Canada. She cut ties with me after I posted an article that said, in essence, that people should not stop being friends with someone simply because they are Republicans, that to do so reduces people to an idea. Again, that stripping of humanity. To her, my willingness to recognize Republicans as people was equated with excusing some of the awful things Republicans have done and, as a black woman, that was hard for her to take. She told me what she thought about me as a person and it was devastating. I had no idea that this was what she had always been thinking.
I don’t fault her or Coolie’s survivors. I understand why the survivors wanted Coolie dead and thought that my friendship with him was my stamp of approval for his actions. I understand why my friend assumed that I was excusing bigotry when I defended the basic humanity of Republicans. Both she and the survivors were people severely personally affected by these people and it is difficult to form complex thoughts about someone who has hurt you. It is hard for me, too. But I know that if I allow myself to dehumanize anyone that I contribute to the many ways we inflict violence, physical or otherwise, on each other – violence that is cyclical and neverending and which ends up destroying us alongside our target.
My ultimate problem is that I can see these people, all of them – Coolie, my friend, Republicans, the murdered family – as normal people. I see them laughing at a joke, I imagine what their favorite food is or what it felt like for them to be in love. I think about how excited they might get at Christmas. In fact, to make this even weirder, I can’t help but imagine it and it costs me the people I love. I feel like I am always staring at a huge screen full of everyone’s lives playing out simultaneously in front of me and all I can think is how so very alike we are.
I still cry a lot. But now it is hidden crying, done on the long drive down the Anthony Henday highway toward my house each evening after work or the gym. I can’t imagine what life would be like if people saw me weeping all the time which is what I feel like doing most days. No way could I be seen as capable, as an author, researcher, powerlifter, woman strong enough to look her foes in the eye. I would just be seen as the mess that I am, fit for nothing but the couch. I cry for our human family at the same time that I hate them for being so terrible. I cry because I don’t know how to hate enough so that my friends will love me.