Can I Get Some Grace? - Issue #31
Thoughts on Cancel Culture, Call of Duty, Cosmo Kramer, and Cosmic Evil.
Some days I think this world isn’t so bad after all.
If I can tear myself away from the headlines, the vitriolic punditry, and the continuous cesspool of outrage that is Twitter, things can even start to look pretty good.
I walk my kids to school where they line up on the little, color-coded dots and wait for the doors to open. Their wonderful teachers check their temperatures, give them a squirt of hand sanitizer, and send them in for another day of class.
I share a friendly wave or brief pleasantries with other parents or neighbors.
I log on to work, where I routinely encounter smart, interesting, and clever co-workers as I go about my own endeavors, which I mostly enjoy.
In the afternoon, I may go for a ride down the bike path, where the mask use has ebbed and flowed pretty reasonably along with the numbers and latest guidance (on my latest ride, almost no one had one).
At the end of the ride, I’m greeted by a vista of two lakes and the mountains rising up against the horizon beyond them.
Later, I pick up the book I’m reading, aptly titled, The Rational Optimist, which argues that, despite the very real horrors that still confront us, from a 30,000-foot view, life on this planet, broadly speaking, is actually getting better and better.
It talks about the miracle of the collective human brain. How we’ve evolved the concept of simple division of labor (e.g. “I will go fishing while you stay here and make more fish hooks.”), into the incredibly advanced, interconnected, and (by comparison) compassionate society we have today.
It’s the kind of book that will make you stare at something like your office trashcan with the little foot pedal that lifts the lid in awe as you contemplate the idea that hundreds, maybe even thousands of brains over the centuries contributed to this convenient, little combination of plastic, metal, hinges, and springs. And you’ll find yourself saying things like, “Remember when garbage bags didn’t have drawstrings?” with genuine gratefulness.
Then, the kids will be playing in the backyard (or, at least, quietly on their tablets), and the sun will set and we’ll eat dinner and I’ll sit back and think, “What are people talking about? This is fine. Life is good. People are great. Everything is going to be juuusst fiiiiineeee…”
Then, later at night, to blow off some steam and because I am still a giant man-child, I hop into a game of Call of Duty Warzone on my Xbox. In the game, you’re playing against other real people, and for a few brief moments before and after each match, you can hear everyone in the lobby coming through your headphones.
Here, in this virtual realm, I confront the true, anonymous, wretched soul of humanity exposed; a cacophony of profanity, racial slurs, threats of violence, and general toxicity.
And I think, “Oh. Oh, right.”
Or, I’ll visit my town’s Facebook “Neighbors Page,” where the neighborliness I routinely experience IRL is replaced by people arguing and complaining about all manner of grievances, both real and perceived, and having lengthy, heated, and insulting exchanges in the comments section below each post.
Maybe it’s the physical separation that emboldens people to unleash their worst selves upon perfect strangers. Or maybe they’re just terrible people. If it’s the latter, then I’ve pretty well isolated myself in a delusional bubble of positivity. But if it’s the former, that worst self has been lurking there all day, and it probably comes out when it feels “safe” to do so, namely in distant and/or anonymous forums.
Here’s the idea that I still can’t shake from my Christian upbringing: That there is Evil lurking OUT THERE. And also Evil lurking within ALL of us. And there are situations, temptations, incidents, etc., that coax it out.
I’m not talking about poor choices or foolish mistakes. I’m talking about Evil as in, like, the Cosmic Force of…
This is something I’ve always been drawn to in the work of David Lynch. He gets it.
So many shows and movies focus on moral gray areas, the circumstances that make otherwise “normal”-seeming people act badly… think The Sopranos, The Wire (Note: if you still haven’t watched this one, do it), Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Fleabag, Ozark, Barry (a really good example, #selfbackpat), and even, I’d argue, Game of Thrones.
They’re focused on the seemingly rational decision-making process behind their protagonists’ wicked deeds, and often, their internal struggle with those decisions. The creators aim to make us empathize with these characters.
Yes, they make choices that are morally wrong, but the word “evil” is almost never used, and a discussion of Evil as a concept would seem quaint or reductive in these shows’ contexts.
But what I love about Lynch is that his work so often features elements of pure malevolence. No gray area. No moral equivalency. Just pure, capital E-Vil.
In Blue Velvet, we have the story of an innocent, small-town kid getting wrapped up in a seedy, secret underworld, alternately horrified and tantalized by what he discovers.
Twin Peaks takes the theme a step further, featuring another seemingly wholesome small town with dark secrets lurking under its quaint veneer. But here, a spiritually attuned FBI agent hunts a killer, and finds himself confronting a case of literal demon possession.
The more recent revival of this show features one particular episode that depicts Cosmic Evil directly (albeit bafflingly, which is very Lynchian).
It starts with the first atomic bomb test in the New Mexico desert in 1946. The detonation seems to signal some other-worldly beings (pictured above) to unleash their malevolent minions upon the Earth, who broadcast a message that renders people unconscious. Next, according to the synopsis, “an unearthly amphibi-insectoid creature hatches from an egg on the bomb's explosion site and crawls through the desert” ...and eventually into an unconscious, young girl’s mouth.
Here’s the Evil that lurks in the ‘Heart of Man’ (represented by the bomb) connecting with a greater Force of Evil that exists in the Spiritual Realm or the Cosmos, a hellish incarnation story.
How’s that for good TV! And, you know from there some very Evil stuff is about to go down.
The idea of wicked, celestial beings just kind of hovering out in the infinite void waiting to unleash their terrors upon the world feels pretty simplistic, or at least out-of-fashion, by today’s thematic standards. But the idea is absolutely the stickiest thing about David Lynch’s work for me.
It feels like a lot of the discussion these days is around who is a good person and who is a bad person, and, more specifically, what to do when we find out someone we thought was a good person—someone we admired—turns out to be bad.
But what if there’s not good people and bad people, but there’s Good and Bad, and it’s everywhere, all the time? In the government. In business. In the Universe. Outside of us, and within.
Ellen seemed like a good person. But then we found out she was bad.
Many of us loved our Kevin Spaceys, our Louis C.K.s, our Al Frankens. Then they turned out to be bad guys too.
Bill Cosby made millions of us laugh, and did a lot of good things for a lot of Black people in the entertainment industry. Goshdangit if the Cosby Show wasn’t fantastic.
Come to find out, he was really bad.
Woody Allen… Uff.
Everybody was thrilled to have Roseanne back, until Roseanne was like, “Hi! I’m Roseanne!”
Actually, let’s talk about Kramer.
Kramer occurred to me as a joke, but actually as I reflect on him, he seems to provide one of the best examples of what I’m trying to say.
Do you remember that video!? I’m not even going to link you to it. It’s too uncomfortable. Google it, if you need to.
But here’s Michael Richards, better known as Kramer, an utterly lovable goofball who’d been bringing us joy for a decade on Seinfeld, a comedian whose act was never especially raunchy or controversial, in a grainy video screaming the N-word over and over at some hecklers in a comedy club.
I remember being utterly stunned. Where did that come from? I thought. Who was that person?
A few weeks later, I remember Jerry Seinfeld looking just as baffled as he sat down with David Letterman to discuss the matter. This was not the guy he knew and loved, he explained. Yes, that’s him on the stage, but that’s not him.
They then piped Michael Richards in via video feed to offer an apology. It was clunky and awkward, and it revealed just how out of touch Richards was. But beyond that, the guy seemed almost stunned himself by what he’d done.
Now, wait. I swear I just stumbled upon this…
Years later, in an interview with Time, he reflected, “When you’re under the helm of anger, watch out, ‘cause it’ll take you down. It’s like being possessed by a demon.” (Emphasis mine.)
Richards was the first celebrity I can remember being “canceled” in the way we understand the term today.
Fast forward, and bear with me, as we zip to the incident back about a year ago, where that White lady in Central Park called the police on that Black, birdwatching dude who asked her to put her dog on a leash.
I want to be clear that I’m not trying to excuse her behavior in any way. I’m not talking about excuses at all.
But in her apology after the incident, she, like Michael Richards, seemed similarly shocked by her own behavior.
And I feel like I’ve seen this kind of thing before.
In the same way someone in a bar fight might reach for a bottle to smash over someone’s head, people can grasp for whatever weapons are available, physical or otherwise, and discover dark sides of themselves in the process.
Michael Richards, feeling antagonized by a few Black audience members, found himself grabbing racial slurs to hurl at them. Amy Cooper, arguing with a Black man in the park, reached for the weapon readily available to her, calling the police on him. You know what will happen, she seemed to be saying, almost as if she was holding a gun or a taser or a broken bottle, don’t make me use this.
I don’t think I’m making this up. Listen to how Christian Cooper, the Black man she was threatening described it himself in almost tactical terms: “Unfortunately we live in an era… where Black men are seen as targets. This woman thought she could exploit that to her advantage…”
“…She took it to a very dark place,” he explained.
Now, these are both pretty intense/extreme examples. Hopefully, you or I would never reach for that kind of advantage, those sorts of weapons.
But how many far less serious incidents expose little, ugly pieces of our inner selves?
A scuffle in a rec league sports game where a rage bubbles up in yourself or a teammate you didn’t previously know existed?
Or a traffic situation that inspires a string of profanity that would make your mom reach right through the Bluetooth and slap you if she’d heard it?
Maybe that profanity includes a reference to the other driver’s gender, or age, or weight, or perceived country of origin? Maybe you’re stunned and suddenly ashamed of what bursts forth…
Where did that come from?
The demons don’t make themselves obvious. At least, not at first.
I know that I have said some pretty mean-spirited and hurtful things to people, especially when I was younger. Part of it was a defense mechanism. I was good with words. I was creative and clever with my insults. Looking back, I know I felt threatened and intimidated by other kids. I certainly wasn’t about to get in any fistfights, but I lashed out with the weapons I had: words that could cut or bludgeon.
My verbal sins didn’t end in high school or college either. I remember one particular instance in which a coworker relayed someone else’s descriptions of my behavior during some meetings earlier in my career. “He just sits there and doesn’t say anything,” she told them, “and then when he finally opens his mouth he makes you feel like a total idiot.”
I felt terrible. I still do. I feel shame just relaying the anecdote. I had no idea I was making other people feel this way. Or, deep down, didn’t I?
The point is, I think we all have the capacity to do and be evil; to act selfishly and to hurt other people.
I think in the case of so many celebrities and other powerful people, their evil impulses were given permission to come out without the natural consequences most of us might experience. Whether it be the lesser evil of an Ellen snapping at staffers, or the greater evil of a Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulting aspiring actresses.
Just like my neighbors on Facebook, they felt relatively safe letting their uglier natures rise up to the surface. But unlike most of my neighbors, powerful people are hard to stand up to, and so their worse natures can often run amok.
There but for the grace go those of us who’ve been fortunate enough to have our worst impulses checked by friends, family, or peers.
To paraphrase a point of the Calvinist Doctrine I grew up with, Total Depravity: are we not all, deep down, at our core, worthy of cancellation?
If not for something we’ve done, then surely for something we’ve said – something that wasn’t captured on a cell phone and posted to Facebook; something we typed but, thankfully, didn’t send. And if not for something we’ve said, then surely for something we’ve thought – a nasty wish, an ugly stereotype, an ungenerous assumption about someone we really didn’t know, a vile word that flies through our brain when someone runs afoul of our personal code of conduct.
The antidote to this depravity has, I think, two ingredients.
The first is Accountability. As a culture, admittedly, we’ve had far too little of it. For our celebrities, for our business leaders, for our politicians, for our powerful people, for our police… the list can go on.
I hope that the next generation of influential people learns that you just can’t get away with this kind of crap anymore.
But accountability can only get us so far. It lets us proceed under the delusion that these people are somehow different. That they are “Bad People” being called out and held accountable by “Good People.” You know, us. We’re finding the bad apples in our basket and casting them aside.
But that point of view inevitably falls short in time. Because the rot is in the basket; it’s in the air; it’s in each individual core. And that’s where the second ingredient of the antidote comes in: Grace.
If Christian Cooper, whose life was actually endangered by that incident in the park, could forgive Amy Cooper, then probably so should the rest of us.
Michael Richards, in that interview with Time, says that he doesn’t know whether society has forgiven him, but that he’s forgiven himself. (Check out also his surprisingly moving little episode of “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” with Jerry Seinfeld, in which he discusses his personal journey after the incident.)
And whereas the pundits, editorialists, politicians, and twitterati all have a vested interest in maintaining outrage, fully formed humans have both the capacity and, I’d argue, the responsibility to forgive.
The view expressed above are solely those of the author, and sometimes barely that.
Cuz, always good to see anyone grappling with the notion of the big "E." The historian Jeffrey Burton Russell did a pretty fantastic four-book reading on the principle of evil and its various incarnations in the West over the centuries, if you're into that sort of thing.
A wise fellow once said, and I paraphrase: "How will you tell the bad guys from the good guys? You will know them by their fruits." And that speaks to outcomes--the righteous will do righteous things, and the unrighteous...you get the idea. In such a view, there's not intrinsic evil, but rather there are evil outcomes.
Theodicy is a rough one. To avoid the stark dualism of Calvinism and strains of thought like Manicheanism (the light vs. the dark), that is, to reconcile the goodness of the Divine with the evil outcomes we frequently observe here in the material world, some interpretations regard the Enemy and his legions as instruments of the Divine Will (if we believe in the omnipotence of The One, how could it be otherwise?) Thus, the evils we observe on a daily basis are relative evils related to the exercise of our own (relatively) free will, but they are not indicative of a fundamentally evil Almighty, if you dig. Our views of right and wrong, then, are at the level of humankind, as is appropriate; the larger, 14-billion year cosmic view from above has a different sense of what is Good that does not jibe with our sensibilities (and how could it be otherwise?)
But, I'm rambling...without question, there's bad things out there. I would argue they are bad things that HAPPEN. Those who choose the route of enabling bad things to happen...those are your bad guys.
FWIW, David Lynch's "Lost Highway" still has the scariest screen moments I've ever seen.
I enjoyed reading this--especially the references to David Lynch. If you've never heard Lynch talk about the incident from his childhood neighborhood that inspired Blue Velvet, it is chilling and revealing in terms of inspiration for the film.
I agree that it is hard to shake the idea of capital-E Evil ingrained in my brain from my upbringing. However, even back then, the idea of a devil whispering in one's ear or a cosmic evil landing on one while bypassing another just did not sit well with me. Evil and Good, Sin and Sanctity seem like loaded terms that (as you said) don't capture the nuance of the human condition. If evil and good exist at all, they are across a broad spectrum--likely based more on the functional (or dysfunctional) wiring of the human brain (I'm thinking of the "Life Line" from Donny Darko https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p20GYzCnfr0). When I say, "There but for the grace of God, go I" I mean I could just as easily have been wired for violence or delusion or bigotry. I could just as easily bypass my empathy circuits in the wrong setting or circumstances (online, under low blood-sugar, under stress, etc). Grace is acknowledging my own fortunate condition both in terms of nature and nurture--a condition that produced a mind at relative ease and in good health. Grace is treating those in less fortunate circumstances with their due measure of understanding and empathy.
Given that, I don't find the labels sinner or saint, evil or good to be productive. I also don't like it when Christians start with "we're all just horrible hopeless sinners." We're not. We are people with varying degrees of biologically healthy dispositions and environmental factors that routinely impact or influence our behavior. The better we can medically treat those dispositions and mitigate the negative environmental influences, with gracious empathy, the better society will be.
Take care, my friend. I enjoy the essays!