Carl is a Masonic brother with whom I feel a kinship. Our grandparents were from Southern Appalachia. We were raised in the Church of Christ. We never leave home unarmed. Tonight, I discovered another commonality when we somehow started talking about World War II. Carl knew a lot more about it than I, but it wasn’t the subject that was the common bond, but our feelings about the subject. Carl was only seven when the war ended, but he grew up listening to the stories of veterans, and as he related some of these stories, he began to cry. I assumed that this would prompt him to change the subject, but he stayed squarely on World War II, and with each anecdote, he cried some more. I too cry about World War II, but only when I am watching documentaries, and only in the company of Peggy. To cry in the company of other men (we were in the proxmity of many men) would mortify me. Yet, I thought well of Carl for doing that which I would not. Mine is a strange world, and it gets stranger all the time.
For example, Carl is a bow-hunter. I’m appalled by sport killing, and I’m especially appalled by killing with inefficient weapons. So, how do I reconcile Carl’s compassion for the suffering of soldiers with his callousness toward the suffering of animals? I cannot. It is like the respect I have for his tears, although I would be ashamed if they were my tears. To be human is to live in contradiction.
If all I knew of Carl was that he killed animals with arrows, I would think very poorly of him. It is only because I know him as a sensitive and complicated man that I don’t feel inclined to condemn him for hunting but to seek to understand him. This is a hopeless task, because there is nothing he could say that I have not heard, or that would change my mind. There comes a point at which further comprehension of another person’s experience would require that I abandon my own. This point marks the difference between intellectual understanding and emotional understanding.
I can accept Carl as a worthwhile person who has a cruel hobby only because I have seen other sides of him, but it is often hard to see other sides of people. It is often hard to even want to see other sides of people. In lodge tonight, for example, I muddled my way through the ritual, not because I didn’t know it, but because I was so distraught over a war protest in Portland last weekend. People at that protest burned an American flag and an effigy of an American soldier. One man even defecated upon a flag.
I am so upset by this that I am considering ending my support of the antiwar effort on an organized level. I deplore, detest, and despise the Portland protestors so intensely that I actually could (not that I actually would) shoot them on sight. If anything, I hate them more than I would hate them if I were not actively opposed to the war. They defile my idealism, and they show me something about myself.
What they show me is how easy it is to turn my desire to oppose the war in the spirit of peace completely upon its head. I am so intent upon love and goodwill that every fiber of my being wants to annihilate these people for their hatefulness. They make me as they are, or rather they elicit a part of me that is like a part of them.
How am I to deal with such feelings? That is what I struggled with during lodge. I was so focused that I literally forgot what lodge I was in, and performed a segment of the Odd Fellow ritual. After my talk with Carl, I thought about how wonderful it would be if I could see these flag burners as I see him—as complex people who sometimes act badly for, what are to them, good reasons. This is easier said than done, because I don’t know them. I only imagine them. I imagine how empowering it must feel to don black hoods, and to make a statement so powerful that it reaches millions. They don’t feel the evil they do, because they are too intoxicated by their power.
They are like the American soldiers who, having seen their comrades killed by the very people they were trying to help, massacred two-dozen Iraqis. Maybe they will feel badly someday, or maybe they won’t, but, in the moment, they saw themselves as the worms that had turned; and it felt good. I suspect that these demonstrators also regard themselves as people who have no power; as people who can neither tolerate the status quo nor change it; as people who believe that almost no one knows or even cares about the pain they feel over the direction their country has taken.
I can relate, but no matter how hard it is to be constructive, anything less makes a person into what he hates. I suspect that I am able to see this from a more mature and thoughtful perspective than that of the demonstrators in Portland, yet I am finding it nearly impossible to heed my own best thinking.