From Preacher, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon.
I gave my son this little speech yesterday, quoting it from memory.
Field’s five now, but I’ve known he was one of the good guys from the minute he was born. I don’t know how or why. But I was right. He’s kind-hearted, tries to make people laugh, has a genuine hunger for knowledge, and cannot finish a snack without offering me a bite. For the life of me, I’ve no idea what makes him so good. He doesn’t even make messes, except on extremely rare occasions. He tried to give a homeless guy a cookie when he was almost two. He delights in creating his own new superheroes, but has no interest in making bad guys for them to fight. “They just help people, Daddy.”
I have kind of a hyper-empathy thing going on, which makes a lot of normal things difficult for me. It’s hard for me to “look out for number one” and focus on my own career and finances. I’ve let people bully and cheat me without repercussion or condemnation, because of a sincere, overwhelming desire inside me to always be who I want to be regardless of who they are, especially when I knew more about the struggles they were going through than they knew about mine.
When I repeated this above exchange to Field, holding him just like this, then hugging him just like this, he pulled back after a few seconds and asked, “But why are there so many people who do bad things?” I told him I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t learn that you need to help people, not hurt them. Maybe they had hard lives that made them meaner than they would’ve been. But, and forgive me for being this blunt without explanation, but my childhood was no goddamn picnic, and the idea of hurting someone without immediate, intervention-requiring cause, disgusts me.
I don’t mete out justice. I don’t live in a zero sum world. But you know what happens to every rapist, racist, bully, abuser, and killer? Their punishment is DEATH. Their time on this planet is limited. I don’t have to seek vengeance on them. Death awaits them all, and the world will be well rid of their stain on the soul of mankind. But I feel sorry for them, anyway. And the reward for living a good life of helping people and improving your community? ALSO DEATH. The fairness of this, the FINALITY of this, comforts me in a way I suppose some would find strange. I want to leave a legacy of encouragement and laughter, and I’m not afraid to be nothing again, after everything I’ve been lucky enough to be. And I have been far luckier than I deserve.
A couple of years ago, I read Jon Ronson’s excellent book, The Psychopath Test, which discussed the nature of anti-social personality disorder, which amounts to a complete lack of basic empathy, a condition that cannot be treated or cured. It is a fact of their biology, according to those who study it. Ronson and I share the opposite affliction, an OVERWHELMING feeling of empathy. Recently, it’s started to worry me that this counter-condition, to which I now attribute my caring nature, my need to never refuse anyone’s request for help, my emotional debilitation (and honestly, hellpits of anger) at the horrors perpetrated by humans against humans, is all, in total, merely a fact of my biology.
Every story I liked growing up told me, “You are who you choose to be.” But what if we’re not? What if it’s almost entirely nature, with very little nurture in the mix? My father abandoned my sister and me when we were children for a life of crime and drugs. I have spent my entire life believing that my job was to build myself into NOT HIM. And I’ve done that. But I have felt every temptation he faced that I know of. And I know a lot more about him than he knows about me. But I’m like my mom. I overextend myself to help people, because I know that even my modest capability levels will aid others in their projects, and while I need to feel valuable on the planet, I have never needed to be THE GUY. I am always content to be THE GUY WHO HELPED. I always will be.
I don’t know why there are so many of “the bad.” I always hate the stupid, pointless crimes and feel sorry for the jerk perpetrator for whatever circumstances and choices led them to being so lame. But now I’m afraid maybe we all just fall somewhere on the spectrum of empathy, locked into our genetic code by dumb luck. I’m even more afraid that those of us who care too much are inadvertently letting dickholes run the world by being overly empathetic to the useless desires of people who can’t imagine doing the same for us.
I do not understand how we find ourselves on a resource-rich planet of such overwhelming beauty and extravagant abundance and our every effort is not spent making sure every other member of our species is clothed, sheltered, fed, educated, and provided with lifetime healthcare. Because if you think the current systems are working out alright, you haven’t been where I have.
There are enough resources, food, land, and energy, but greed and fear prevent us from sharing. Why aren’t children like that? Is it because those who HAVE must self-validate every scrap of useless garbage they own by preaching their idiotic mantras to the HAVE-NOTs? Or are some children like that, actually, already pre-destined to think only of themselves?
I want to believe we are who we choose to be. But if that’s true, we are not making the right choices. I don’t know if I am, either. But I’m finally working on the stories I want to tell, trying to draw things that bring a little light into your life, and keeping my son safe and loved and free no matter what it takes.
This is a ramble, not a sermon. But if I could encode a thought into everyone’s DNA, it’d be this:
"Use all of your abilities to help everyone you can."
Honestly, I think that’d solve just about everything.