Sometimes it’s easier to give compassion to those whose troubles fell upon them undeserved. But those who’ve, from our perspective, tangled themselves up all on their own—they need compassion every bit as much. You who are without sin, cast the first stone… No one did. Because you can’t grasp a stone while keeping a grip on grace. One or the other must stay on the ground.
Going easy on ourselves also reflects a key cognitive fact: we judge ourselves by our internal motives and everyone else by their external actions. And thus, in considering our own misdeeds, we have more access to mitigating situational information. This is straight out of Us/Them–when Thems do something wrong, it’s because they’re simply rotten; when Us-es do it, it’s because of an extenuating circumstance and “Me” is the most focal Us there is, coming with the most insight into internal state. Thus, on this cognitive level, there is no inconsistency or hypocrisy and we might readily perceive a wrong to be mitigated by internal motives in the case of anyone’s misdeeds. It’s just easier to know those motives when we are the perpetrator.
The adverse consequences of this are wide and deep. Moreover, the pull towards judging yourself less harshly than others easily resists the rationality of deterrence. As Ariely writes in his book, “Overall, cheating is not limited by risk; it is limited by our ability to rationalize the cheating to ourselves”.
―Robert Sapolsky, Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Best and Worst
To think better, to think like the best humans, we are probably going to have to learn again to judge a person’s intelligence, not by the ability to recite facts, but by the good order or harmoniousness of his or her surroundings. We must suspect that any statistical justification of ugliness and violence is a revelation of stupidity.
―Wendell Berry, “People, Land, and Community”, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays
I’m afraid of time… I mean, I’m afraid of not having enough time. Not enough time to understand people, how they really are, or to be understood myself. I’m afraid of the quick judgements or mistakes everybody makes. You can’t fix them without time. I’m afraid of seeing snapshots, not movies.
Now, to return to my subject, I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason, than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things.
I feel as though, if I were to extend my hand just a little toward the pool where the ideas ferment, I could grab at the idea and pull it out of the pool and onto the floor where ideas must stand before the jury of the brain. There, it must present itself, still from the pool, and a bit shivery because new ideas are not given a towel to dry off with, towels being reserved for proven theories; new ideas are simply pulled and stood up, and asked to explain themselves – not a very pleasant thing really, which is why so many people go into the room where the pool is.
I Feel like a prison holding myself, bounded by the judgements of people I care [about] and chained by the rules of the society I live in. If I would let the person who speaks inside me out, he would tell you a different story than what you have seen all these years. Sometimes I see myself crying, screaming and trying to tear myself into pieces when I stand in front of the mirror so that I could finally be free from myself. But the demon I have created inside me to guard [me] beats me down and laughs at me, watching me bleed.
How do people survive horrible experiences? In Beloved, Toni Morrison gives an illustration of resilience and how fragile it is.
When good hearted Paul D. appears on Sethe’s porch one day in 1873 neither has any idea how his arrival will shake their lives and their Ohio community. It isn’t that he carries a secret. It is that he is unaware of the truth that everyone else knows. His coming will awaken that truth, opening old wounds that will either heal or kill.
Paul D. and Sethe are both former slaves who escaped from a farm called Sweet Home after it was passed on to relatives of the original owners. Mr. and Mrs. Garner had been atypical slave owners who allowed their slaves to learn to read and write, to carry guns and to speak their own opinions. This left their small group of slaves easy prey to the racism and prejudice of the new owners, who felt obliged to punish them for “privileges” to which they had become accustomed. Paul D. and Sethe are the last alive and are free after years of hardship… at least they appear so.
When Paul D. arrives, Sethe is in a bad situation: she lives alone, isolated from the community, in a house inhabited by her youngest daughter, Denver, a teenager, and the ghost of her dead baby girl, who bumps and stomps around the house. Her mother-in-law is long dead, her husband never made it back from Sweet Home, and her two boys have run away. She and her house reek of death and despair, but Paul D. is drawn to this beautiful woman that he desired so many years ago and he is unwilling to see it. Unspoken truth looms over them, sowing discontent.
In Alabama, where Paul D. was in prison, he was part of a chain gang. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, prisoners were put on the chain for the duration of their sentence. They couldn’t relieve themselves or sleep without being chained to the next man. These men were escaped slaves or captured free men and many were there on trumped up charges, for stealing in order to eat, for assault or killing in self-defense. Through incredible teamwork, Paul D.’s entire unit escaped one night in a heavy rainstorm and were freed by Cherokee Indians who sympathized with the prisoners and removed their chains. He became a free man, although he feels that he doesn’t know how to be one.
Sethe was never chained in the way Paul D. was, although she spent some time in prison. Instead, her chains exist in her mind and are every bit as real as his leg irons. She has withdrawn from everyone who might help her remove them, isolating herself from the world around her and thus verifying and accepting the judgments of her neighbors and of her former captors. She has nourished accusing memories and remained stoic and silent.
Beloved stirs up deep emotions. How much can a human being take? It also encourages us to reach out to each other, to try and understand and help those who have horror in their past. The chains required are chains of love and acceptance, not chains of punishment.