Mr. Steely Dan says that “Everybody on the street has murder in his eyes.” That’s something of an exaggeration (especially these days, now that we’re living in the Age of Zombies; of course, it’s hard to make eye contact with anyone anymore since everyone’s hunched over their smart phones communing with the cybergods), but it’s an idea worth exploring nonetheless.
As a secular guy, I can’t subscribe to my wife Jina’s notion that we’re all creatures of sin. I prefer the more compassionate realm of Buddhism, which posits that our more regrettable actions–or “unskillful” behavior–derive from improper thinking. As the Buddha writes in his autobiography, right smack dab at the outset: “We are what we think. With our thoughts we make the world.”
Which is why you have to be especially careful if you agree with something else Steely Dan says, “Worldly wise, I realize that everybody’s crazy.” Luckily, few of us are as crazy as Adam Lanza, the disturbed young fellow who murdered all those poor children and public school workers the other day, but just enough people are to make the world the living hell that it is. (For a more sobering look at the implications of this phenomenon, please turn to Alternet and read the recently posted piece, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” The woman who wrote it–sorry her name escapes me at the moment–is not who she claims in the title, but does have an emotionally unstable son who, apart from being intimidatingly brilliant and charming most of the time, is apt to lapse into life-threatening explosions that have her wondering how safe she and the rest of her family is (are?). Keep in mind that the real Adam Lanza did in his own mother with her own guns before he went and wiped out all those little kids.)
I can’t deny participation in wringing my hands when something like this happens (as the woman who wrote the above-mentioned piece says, the U. S. needs to address its epidemic of mental illness along with the pandemic of guns; an English guy on CNN I saw venting on a clip–not the kind that’s attached to a rifle–claimed that there are 300 million guns in the country–what a relief to know that, as the NRA says, guns don’t kill people–we do–phew!)
Apart from the obvious grief you have to feel when you take in the enormity of such a slaughter, it also pays to remember how capable most of us are of a certain degree of violence, when push comes to shove. This is not to confess that I’m about to embark on a killing spree; one unfathomable aspect about a lot of these mass-shootings is their “motiveless malignity,” a phrase Melville’s Ishmael ascribes to Moby-Dick; it’s hard to get your head around how someone could do something so hateful to people who are not only innocent of the peccadillos racked up by most of the rest of us, but personally unknown to him.
What I’m referring to is the fury that builds up when you’re stuck in a claustrophobic marriage, or when brought to the breaking point by the exigencies of your life. Young men return from wars horrified at what they’ve done, forced as many of them felt they were by the grotesque nature of their surroundings and the insidious efficiency of their training (as well as that of their taxpayer-provided arsenal). We all snap at one another sometimes, letting dark remarks fly like nasty little bullets into one another’s ears. A lot of how we choose to react to one another’s barbs comes from how we decipher the intention behind the comment.
For instance,the other day when one of my seven-year-old students told me with a mischievous yet largely harmless glint in his eye that I looked like Pinocchio (I assume he was referring to my big nose and not my penchant for lying shamelessly), I didn’t think, “I’m going to kill that little son of a bitch!” Even the thought would have been an overreaction, considering he meant nothing by what he said. He was just being honest. Therefore, I laughed. I waited until I had a quiet moment in the rest room to burst into tears.
A Buddhist parable speaks of a fisherman who gets rammed (accidentally) by a guy in another boat, then rails against him for his incompetency. The second man asks if he would have reacted the same way had the offending vessel been empty. The first guy says of course not. The second guy shrugs. The first guy gets enlightened on the spot, realizing the second boat is empty–of self, that is–due to the law of dependent origination and the interconnectedness of all beings.
I’m paraphrasing, but that’s also the title of a book written by the late Osho, the rapscallion formerly known as Baghwan Shree Rashneesh, whose name I’m probably misspelling. I just hope his ghost doesn’t run me over in one of his chauffeured eighty Rolls Royces he rolled around in with one of many gullible young bimbos on his compound or ranch or whatever it was in Oregon back in the eighties. The Empty Boat.
A Zen koan states: “If you see the Buddha on the street, kill him.” Creative writing teachers dictate: “Kill your darlings.” So I’m going to be presumptuous and try to upstage the Buddha for a moment, not that I’d go so far as to kill the poor fellow. In the words of the quasi-hermaphroditic, fey, ethnically-confused, clearly talented but also overrated “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson, “I’m a lover, not a fighter.”
Which is my way of circuitously getting back to the title of this entry, which refers to a line from George Orwell’s 1984, although the original line is: “Thought crime is a terrible thing.” Depending on what you mean by “thought crime” (for example, “Down with Big Brother”), it’s not necessarily any worse than comparing someone with a big nose to Pinocchio (or maybe my student was trying to call me a puppet–why, that little bastard!). The other night–which happened to be a Sunday–my wife sat me down next to her on the couch (yes, I am a psychiatrist) and read to me a passage from the Gospel of Matt in which Jesus warns his disciples that if a married man looks on another woman with lust, he’s already committed adultery in his heart.
With all due respect, Jesus was full of shit. There’s a big difference between fantasizing about shagging some awe-inspiring broad and actually going to the trouble of doing it (as if she’d even be interested–sniffle, sniffle). Besides, if you have a crappy marriage, why not commit adultery? That way at least your spouse will have a good excuse to divorce you. (I’m not advocating infidelity; I’m just trying not to censor myself, in order to show how harmless thoughts are, as long as you don’t act on them. Besides, that’s the whole point of meditation, isn’t it, Buddha? And what’s writing except meditation with your fingers?)
There have been times when my wife and I have come close to murdering each other. It would be frighteningly easy to do. Rage is poisonous. It’s also contagious. Safeguarding against it is the key to a happy marriage and a good life. Anger is the opposite of happiness, and it’s no coincidence that “mad” and “angry” are synonyms, since unchecked anger can be a form of insanity. It takes a strong and brave soul to be a pacifist.
The good news is I don’t take the bait anymore when my wife flies off the handle. If I hold back long enough, she usually cools down and apologizes for laying into me until the next outburst. The bad news is that all that aggression has to go somewhere and I’m paying the price with rising blood pressure and chronic chest pain. The good news is this is probably nothing that exercise or divorce can’t cure, but if I want to go on living much longer I might want to consider both in the precariously near future.
Life is still worth living but, despite what Ray Kurzweil believes, death is also worth dying. I hope I’m able to reach a state before I greet the grave in which I’m at peace with the world and the people around me, and with my disintegrating self before saying bye-bye forever. I don’t want to die while having a shit-fit. At times, when in a vindictive frame of mine, I envision having a heart attack during a marital row and saying as my dying zinger: “Congratulations! Now you can go find some other sap to ruin.”
But I hope I don’t sink to that level of pettiness. On the other hand, I don’t want to voice a mendacious deathbed conversion to Christianity just to humor Jina in her addictive delusion.
I’d rather say something upbeat like: “Good luck. Sorry it hasn’t worked out.” Or else steal Wittgenstein’s deathbed valediction: “Tell them it was wonderful,” and not parrot Bing Crosby’s “It’s been a great game of golf, fellas,” which would be painfully out of character; not even I could ever manage to sound that white–at least I hope not.
What would you like your last words to be?