Why do people do the things they do? Sure, some pray, meditate and love freely, but others stab their brothers, curse their friends, and set buildings on fire just to watch them burn. Why do people do these things? Why so much violence? Seems a fair question.
Well, to start with, life is hard, plain and simple. Growing up can be trying even under optimal conditions — but most of us were not raised, nor do we live, under optimal conditions. This creates problems, as we know, and these problems can range from mild to catastrophic. The catastrophic problems are often wildly obvious: the anger, self-destructive and antisocial behaviors that, unless corrected, often self-condemn individuals to lives of personal, social and spiritual hardship. Today our drug rehabilitation centers, prisons, and streets are unfortunately brimming with desperate souls, overwhelmed by life, and overwhelming the meager systems available for both their counsel and treatment.
But sometimes the symptoms are not wildly obvious. Sometimes they remain hidden, boiling always, just below the surface, ready to explode. If someone is told repeatedly, for instance — either verbally, nonverbally, or both — that they are worthless, don’t be surprised when over time they will come to believe it, and then paint everything and everyone around them with that same bitter sense of worthlessness.
This heartbreaking sense of worthlessness is a psychological and spiritual cancer, and no race, creed or class is immune from its toxic corrosion. These are life’s damaged souls, struggling through their days with a simmering, poisonous burden. Their numbers are legion, and while some seek life’s shadows, many others can be found in the most respectable places.
Just to be seen
Anyone who has ever attended an organized religious or spiritual group, or simply some well-meaning event, has probably noticed that people attend these functions for various reasons. Most go because they want to learn, grow or help others, but there are those who attend just to be seen. Why? Well, you may have noticed that those who attend for genuine reasons rarely make displays of themselves, while others often make grand displays of themselves — of their beliefs and convictions, their prized social standing, their superiority to, well, you. But these performances are theater, drama performed to convince you — and themselves — that they are the people they pretend to be.
The compulsion for grand moral, spiritual and intellectual display is often a byproduct of what today is termed Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It is an extreme form of psychopathology, characterized by overt arrogance, obsession with self-image, the inability to fathom the legitimate wants and needs of others, often accompanied by suicidal addictions like alcoholism and drug abuse. From the outside looking in, individuals suffering with this disorder often appear to be “in love with themselves,” but this is appearance only. A good case can be made that they suffer from an extreme form of self-loathing, the very self-hate and sense of worthlessness mentioned above which they ingested as a child, and a fact they now hide by obsessively exhibiting the opposite.
Self-hatred is one of the most malignant of all psychopathologies, as destructive as it is pervasive, yet often difficult to put your finger on. It comes in many forms: self-derision, suicide, psychosomatic illness, perfectionism, compulsive gambling, the abuse of drugs, alcohol, food and tobacco, unrealistic illusions and expectations, excessive worry and guilt, and that’s just to name a few of its various forms and manifestations.
These behaviors arise, generally, due to the incorporation of misinformation into our lives. Perhaps, for instance, a parent called you an idiot every time you made a simple mistake when you were a child, and over time that false information became fused within your psyche. Subconsciously, you came to believe it, and so you consistently, but subconsciously, torpedoed your own life, self-insuring that the idiot (you) always managed to fail. So, anytime something (anything) went wrong, deep down inside you blamed yourself. Sound familiar?
But in extreme cases this subconscious self-loathing becomes intolerable, and the suffering individual, desperate to rid themselves of the toxic burden, can find release only by means of projection. The volatile emotions are subsequently projected outward, such that the person’s own festering rage and self-hatred are now falsely discovered in those around them — they’re the problem! In the most extreme cases, everyone and everything outside the self appears vile and corrupt, deserving of destruction. Acts of violence such as fights, stabbings, arson, suicide, even murder can result.
This, then, is the topography of rage, a grim landscape where mountains of truth are too high to scale, rivers of reality too treacherous to cross. It is the self-created dungeon of the soul.
Acceptance of Truth
The remedy is the conscious acceptance of truth, generally approached with the help of a psychiatrist. In the case cited above, for instance, the honest acceptance of the fact that your parent abused you emotionally, and that you were not — and are not now — an idiot, must be faced and consciously acknowledged. This is no place for amateur interventions, by the way, for usually it requires serious, often lengthy, psychological counseling for successful resolution.
But counseling on this scale is generally a profoundly trying journey, overturning decades of accepted beliefs, in the end a process that is almost as intolerable as the affliction itself. So — and unfortunately — many victims avoid the painful truths buried within, opting instead for tortured lives of painful denial. To accomplish this, elaborate deceptions are constructed: fake lives, lies designed to shield both themselves and the outside world from the truth.
For those so afflicted, one of the cleverest places to insinuate themselves becomes any one of the well-revered groups, societies, or spiritual traditions mentioned at the outset of this article. In People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, psychiatrist Scott Peck notes that the self-loathing are drawn to groups of high-standing almost like a magnet. Because it is within these organizations where they hope to cloak themselves, effectively hiding amongst the decent in hopes of blending in. What better place to conceal your bitter contempt than behind a priest’s robe or minister’s collar? What better place to trumpet your wonderfulness than as a scout chief, local volunteer, teacher or little league coach? Ever wonder why the miserable, spiteful, rule-obsessed deacon is almost as common as the loving, decent one? Isn’t it curious how priests, scout leaders, ministers, etc., seem to be getting routinely carted off these days for child or sexual abuse?
Of course, this by no means suggests these groups and traditions are dominated by the self-loathing. Far from it. It is, rather, to point out that sprinkled among the caring, loving and decent practitioners, there are those who are there for showtime only, and the ugly fact is, they can be dangerous people — dangerous, not only to themselves, but to others. This a hard truth, and a truth often resisted by people of good will.
Clarity of purpose
The resources used for genuine spiritual transcendence are also regular ports-of-call for those self-incarcerated within the topography of rage, and for clarity of purpose it is essential to differentiate between the two.
Life is full of love, joy and success, but most of our successes are purchased through constant effort, failure, and renewed commitment — by struggling our way through our failures. By suffering. But the willingness to suffer in search of truth is precisely what the self-loathing fear, something they sense must be avoided at all cost. Unfortunately, this avoidance only augments their suffering exponentially. But this cannot go on forever — much-too-much steam builds in the boiler. According to the “physics” of rage, sooner-or-later the boiler’s seams will shear, the bolts will blow, and then all that rage will explode.
We all swim in a sea of damaged souls, damaged for reasons more numerous than there are stars in the heavens, a truth that makes genuine outreach truly challenging. The remedy is always love and truth, but that is far easier said than done. Thus, are we repeatedly forced to watch the curtain rise on the theatrics of evasion because, until the explosion occurs, the show must go on.
So, the next time the curtain rises, it may be wise to watch very closely. Because just beneath the surface, below that obnoxious grin, look of smug superiority or seething anger, there may be a hidden, subconscious scream, a desperate, almost hideous cry for help. Perhaps then a simple smile or kind word might encourage one battered soul to take the first few steps away from the topography of rage toward the liberating geography of love.
After all, it is said God deserts no one, so I suspect we should try no less.