“The lunatic is in my head. You raise the blade. You make the change. You rearrange me until I’m sane. You lock the door and throw away the key. There’s someone in my head, but it’s not me.”– Roger Waters
A lot of the things we hear about on the news are an abstraction. Someone is killed in an armed robbery. A fire destroys an apartment building on the other side a town. A deadly virus kills over 500,000 Americans. These are things that have some impact on our lives, but unless we know anyone personally affected they are merely abstractions.
In other words, they aren’t reality for us. Sure, some of us know someone that knows someone that knows someone, but that’s not really the same thing. It’s a lot like playing six degrees of Kevin Bacon. All of us can get to a point where we can trace our way back. That’s not the same thing as having someone in our inner circle that has been personally affected.
Live long enough and you build a kind of shield to all of these abstractions. They happened and we know they happened, but they aren’t really a part of our reality. That is until someone pierces that shield. That can be someone in our inner circle or simply someone we know. When it is someone we know we can’t deny it anymore. It becomes that much more real.
This happened twice in one day for me this past week. First, we discovered that one of our former coworkers was one of the four Houston area arrests for the January 6th capital attack. As former coworkers go, he was fairly benign. He lasted one year on our campus, but we did share an office with him. He is no longer teaching, so if you look him up he will be listed under a different profession.
The news was both shocking and perfectly predictable at the same time. It was pretty clear from his posts on social media that he had become radicalized. Still, it’s always surprising to see someone you know involved with something like that. It’s a not so gentle reminder that these events are very real and that the monsters might be closer than they appear.
That being said, given the numbers involved it is clear that we are talking about a small minority of the population. When events like this become internalized we should always remind ourselves of how rare these events are. We have to balance the vigilance they inspire in us with the perspective not to see the bogey man around every corner.
Our daughter faces this test now. The choir director at her high school was arrested on assault charges in his former state. He has been put on administrative leave and will likely stand trial there. On a slower news day, I will tell you the story that fuels my reticence with revealing details on stories like these.
She had met this man and was looking forward to being in his class. It really shook her to think of him in this light. As you might imagine, the feeding frenzy had begun. Stories came out of the woodwork about incidents that may have happened in his time here. Who knows how true they are.
The difficult part is explaining to a young child the balance between always being careful and excessively living your life in fear. In over twenty years of teaching I can count on one hand the number of teachers I was familiar with that had credibly been accused of assaulting a student. Incidents like that are fairly rare. That kind of perspective is tough for a kid who sees the leader of their program as a sudden predator.
As frightening as this all is, it is so much more frightening to think of someone you know as a monster. Sometimes you get a feeling in the back of your mind that something is not quite right. Sometimes you don’t. Not getting that feeling is so much worse. How could that person fool so many people? How could I allow myself to believe they were just like the rest of us?
From there you get the even darker questions. What were the circumstances that led them down this road? If you switched up a few of the common denominators in my life could I turn out the same way? Could I become a monster? It’s a frightening proposition. All of us have had a moment where we could imagine it all going sideways if we made a different choice. Are we lucky or did those people simply lack something that most of us have?
It is all part of the separation between empathy and disgust. The key in situations like this is humility. In many cases, these people were us with one or two bad choices that led to horrible circumstances. There isn’t much that separates us. That’s the scary part when you know someone that did these things. When the abstraction becomes real you have to deal with it somehow.