Sunday 7 November 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Recently, whilst watching BBC News, I faced what I can only call an 'emotional and rational cataclysm'. One of the presenters was interviewing a woman whose only son had been violently murdered by a local gang. Some of the culprits had been given life sentences, but after six or seven years they were about to be released. In the studio with the aforementioned mother was an expert in law who tried to explain the reason behind the change in the offenders' punishment.

This was yet another occasion on which I felt every part of my body reaching out to another person for whom, in my view, justice had not been fully done. This woman's pain, on talking about her son and how he'd been set upon by a bunch of low-lifes, was palpable and real. My emotions ranged from anger at the gang members, who had apparently shown no remorse for their actions, to despair at yet more evidence of human failure. But then came the law analyst's intervention. He spoke of broken homes and shattered dreams, of wasted childhoods, of an imbalance between physical growth and mental development. My mood changed. Doubts crept in. Then. the mother held the floor again. Pictures of the criminals were shown and my anger returned. To say that I felt like a tennis ball being hit from side to side during that debate would be an understatement. It was only when someone mentioned the 'c' word that I realised what I was going through.

'Compassion' comes from the Latin 'compassiō' (fellow feeling). However, to a Spanish speaker, when said quickly, the term might be a bit confusing: 'compasión' vs 'con pasión'. The former translates as 'compassion' into English, whereas the latter comes back as 'with passion'. There is a rule in Spanish that dictates that in any word where the letters 'b' and 'p' are preceded by 'n', the 'n' is changed to an 'm', hence the confusion sometimes when you hear people talking of 'compasión' or 'con pasión'. That the mother was talking with passion should come as no surprise. After all it was her son who had been savagely murdered by thugs. But still, when the expert explained how these young criminals needed love and compassion above all, I felt my liberal self pick a fight with my animal instinct.

What is it about the efforts to commiserate with transgressors that brings us down a couple of notches on our human scale? How often have I caught myself thinking: 'Hanging would be too good for him/her/them!' only to be repelled (well, only just) at my attitude afterwards? Do you, readers and fellow bloggers, feel the same?

In a world where many times we're not even waiting for the other party to finish his or her side of the argument before we press on to put our final point across, is it surprising that sympathy is going the same way as the Bengal tiger, towards extinction? I confess that I used to belong to the ‘an eye for an eye’ brigade, but experience has convinced me that when you retaliate against an unjust action, or what you think it's an unjust action, the reaction you get is almost the same as spitting against a 200-mile-per-hour gale strong wind. You’re the only who’s going to get hurt. And then you have to hurt the other party even more. Which is why, over the years, I have shifted the centre of discussion or debate from me to us, you and me.

But I would be lying if I wrote that when I look at mugshots of criminals I remain undisturbed. No. I want them punished. Harshly. Severely. As that mother on the BBC channel said: “Doesn’t life mean life? Doesn’t taking someone’s life mean that yours will not be spared?” And wasn’t she right, though? I might have shifted the centre of discussion or debate, but the goalposts still remain in place, dug in the mud.

Compassion is usually confused with pity, so I guess the Germans got it right when they decided that their term would be as un-Latin as possible. In the Teutonic language compassion translates as ‘Mitgefühl’ and the verb is ‘mitfühlen', namely, ‘to feel with’. In that sense, the expert on law was asking us to leave aside our prejudices and ‘feel’ the culprits’ pain. There’re a couple of small problems with that approach, though. Occasionally when we use a microscope to analyse a person’s upbringing and surroundings up close, trying to understand how they are capable of committing an atrocious act, we are in fact giving them a free ticket to Victimhood Island. After all, we know that killing someone else is wrong, even more so when there’s no apparent cause. The other dilemma is that where do we stop? Should we sympathise with Mao for the millions he killed in China? Who knows, maybe he had a lousy childhood. Should we feel compassion towards Hitler for not making it as a painter and forget about Die Endlösung?

Taking into account the kind of society in which we live today, I am of the opinion that we need more compassion, not less, especially when humiliation and aggressiveness have become so common. But every time I think of that woman on BBC News, I feel the wind pushing my ‘Compassion’ boat in her direction and not in the direction of her son’s murderers.

© 2010

Next Post: ‘Vertical Road’ (Review), to be published on Tuesday 9th November at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. A post after my own heart, Cuban.

    It is so so difficult this ping pong life, hate and compassion bounce one against one another.

    The thugs, the 'low lifes' who killed this woman's son, are also human beings who no doubt have been severely abused in their time.

    That's generally how it happens. Abuse in childhood, in infancy even, interferes with our capacity to show compassion towards others. It can sometimes lead to a tendency to want to abuse others.

    So I'm inclined to agree with you, Cuban. We need more compassion, not less. We need to try to find ways at a societal level to look after all our people from earliest days so they do not grow up wanting abuse others out of their own pain.

    Thanks for a beautifully written and powerful post.

  2. Oh, big subject for a Sunday morning (for those of us for whom Sunday is a real day of rest and nothing to do with listening to vicars!).

    Brought up a quaker I do major in compassion for all and sundry but I still struggle with the idea of compassion for rapists and abusers. Somehow I find the idea of torture (because that is what it amounts to) and ruining a life more cruel than that of ending one. I don't say this is a logical response... just how I feel.

  3. Beautifully articulated Cuban. Humans have to be held responsible for their actions - but perpetrators also have hearts and need to feel compassion (well, most anyway). That compassion does not mean we do not hold them responsible for what they have done, however.

    Hate the action, mete out the appropriate punishment, yet have respect and compassion for the broken heart caught up in the evil action - they have usually been soul raped themselves.

    Sounds great in theory .... I know I would have quite a different view if I were that mother.

    Complex isn't it?

  4. Complex, indeed. Many thanks for your feedback.

    Compassion, feeling and acting on it, is probably one of the hardest tasks human beings face, in my humble opinion. It's less difficult when the offense occurs outside one's boundaries, but hwen it's close to home... well, how do we rein our animal instinct in?

    Once again, I have to praise my wife, who's influenced me a great deal in the act of sympathising - even empathising! Now, there's a tough one! - with other people. When someone's child/ren has/have been unkind to mine, or when I feel that I've been wronged. To see the other person's point of view has been one of the unintentional lessons I've learnt from my spouse.

    Also, compassion lies at the heart of most religions, a point I forgot make in my post. It's usually bragged about a lot in the Abrahamic faiths as if it was sucn an intrinsic part of them that it's almost as if compassion had been created by Jews, Christians and Muslims, yet as many world events have shown over the centuries, not always the House of the Abrahamic God has had space and time for compassion.

    Have a nice Sunday.

    Greetings from London.

  5. such a difficult and thorny issue to get to grips with - interesting comments - do you remember the Stephen lawrence case and how that tore the parents apart - that was in my part of London horrifically. Greetings from Mexico...

  6. Agreed, Cuban. We need more compassion, not less.

    That being said, as a mother and a grandmother I can sympathize with the mother. Like you, I've uttered the words "hanging would be too good for them," as I've asked myself "what if it was YOUR son, one of YOUR grandchildren." But it's always someone's baby who gets hurt, isn't it?

    When I hear the sound of my own voice wishing perpetrators a painful death or dismemberment, I caution myself that it's not my place to judge. But still I do.

  7. I often experience the same mixture of feelings. I think it's only human to want to see revenge exacted sometimes, and yet, another part of us can see that it isn't necessarily right to seek vengeance.

    Incidentally, (spoken) English does n->m as well, we're just not self-aware enough to write it down ;)

  8. Oh boy, you do like to throw the big questions at us, don't you? I guess that my deeper compassion would be toward the mother of the murdered boy while trying (probably unsuccessfully) to reserve judgment toward the murders. But just because one has been abused or comes from a broken home does not justify becoming a monster. Also, I always wonder - if we show "undue" compassion, do those who murder, rape, beat, batter and destroy learn to be better citizens? Or do they think that we have no power to punish, much less stop them, and escalate their behavior? When I went to Julie's show on Friday, I thought a lot about the stories at the exhibit. A lot of those people came from very dark and bad places yet they decided to become better people. Others - well, we know the story all too well. I think about the human heart a lot when I look at art; even there, sometimes you can see heart - and sometimes you can just see opportunism and careerism.
    Of course, that's a far less all difficult question than the one in your essay but doesn't it always come to some sort of choice? Even prisoners in the concentration camps could chose to either help their fellow victims (when they could) or side with the Nazis and become destroyers themselves. That must have been one of the most difficult choices that a human being could make and yet, so many did chose to be better - to extend the hand of compassion under the most lethal and vicious suffering that a people could endure. I don't know if I could have the strength in similar circumstances.

  9. I do feel like you do, Cuban, that this woman deserves justice and her son deserves justice. At the same time, I do feel like you do, that without compassion we descend into something that I'm not proud of.

    It's easy to have a visceral reaction to something but it's much harder and more worthwhile to look beyond our initial anger to finding out why this happened. What drove these boys to behave the way they did? What went so wrong inside them that they lost their humanity for those moments when they committed that crime. Only by understanding this and doing something about it can we prevent this crime from happening again and again.


  10. Cuban, I was as you know a police officer for over a decade. In all that time I don't think I ever met a violent criminal (as opposed to the thieves and fraudsters etc) who was not a damaged individual - sometimes terribly damaged.

    That said, I also met a lot of victims of crime whose early lives/lives before a crime happened to them were equally terrible. And yet they had chosen to try and live a better life than they had been shown by parents or carers. So people do have choices, though perhaps not always the intellect to choose.

    However, this is a country with a rule of law, and if justice experts choose to release a convicted killer (particularly young offenders now grown-up) they have intelligent reasons for doing so. Those boys will always be on life licence, so any further crime will head them straight back to jail. Getting released is not the end of the matter, nor does it mean that their horrendous offence can or will ever be forgotten.

    But the bigger point, which you explored so beautifully linguistically? Yes, we should have compassion for the very worst of humanity, because if we do not, what are we? Don't choose just the worthy to have compassion for.

    And I have met some real bad bastards.

    Thoughtful, intelligent post - thank you.

  11. It's difficult. I work in a related field and can't quite balance my concern for victims with any sense of compassion for the perpetrators, most of whom share the same background as their victims. This is a very thoughtful post, but one to which there are no easy answers.

  12. It's a very tough balance to find and I have as difficult a time as you do. Sometimes I try to imagine an aggressor as one of my own children (gone wrong, dear lord I hope not ever...) in order to have a persepctive that isn't entirely black and white.
    I don't doubt for a moment that an upbringing lacking in education (both personal and academic)and decent parenting is a huge factor for many people who end up in criminal activity. I do believe that many are victims of an impoverished (literal and figurative) background, but the issue I struggle most with whether it is really possible to overcome that 'deficit'. In some cases yes, but if children do not learn to respect and understand others in their formative years, is it really possible to do so later?
    A thought-provoking post, Cuban. Your honesty and transparency about this issue made for a compelling read.

  13. Trabajo en un hospital de bajos recursos, muchos padres tratan a sus hijos peor que animales. Los abusos, los huesos rotos. Si no hay nadie que les pase la mano a esos niños que crees que resulte de tanto abuso? Monstruos.

    Ahora, no se si pudiera tener compasion si algo semejante a lo que le paso a esa madre, me pase a mi. Disculpa mi ortografia.

  14. As always, a passionate and thought provoking piece, Mr. Cuban. Compassion to you, my friend.

  15. Today, a verdict was handed down for the death penalty for 2 men who were home invaders, and raped, tortured, terrorized, and murdered a mother and her 2 young daughters, then set the home on fire.

    I have always had deeply rooted compassion for our human condition..and looked for the roots of crime.

    And then an unutterable crime comes along. And I, a comfortable theorist, am without compassion for the criminals. Some crimes resonate as the ugliest. Sometimes I change my mind about capitol punishment. Today.

  16. Thanks for your comments. Lyn, I hear you and I would be feeling the same way.

    Sometimes I upload a video that has nothing to do with the post. But on this occasion I included Baglietto's song 'El Loco en la Calesita, performed by his mate Fito, on purpose. The song is about a man who, you could say, has no childhood and his troubles in life. He doesn't become a criminal, but does dabble in drugs and finally commits suicide. Some of the decisions we make in life come from those precious years when we're still kids. But that still doesn't excuse our deeds.

    Many thanks. You've been most kind.

    Greetings from London.

  17. Slightly OT - thank you for reminding me of that poem by Cavafy. Thanks to the miracles of uTube, I found a version spoken in Greek. I've posted it on my blog in your honor.

  18. What a nice discovery.
    I like your music in your profile.

    I didn't know it was possible do do that, on that place.

    As the world is a village, it wourld be very funny if you would know one of my friends in london. He is as well in organisations on happenings, as far I have understood. A la retraite. American, He speaks french as well. His name : Richard Gibson. Do you know him ?

    A little hello from Lausanne, Switzerland.

    Please came on my blogs of reportages, France, Japan i tuti cuanti.

  19. I came to your blog throught Yoli. But her, no se como ha venido a mi blog.

  20. So well spoken. I so wish I could show more compassion because I think it does make a difference but then I think what the heck is wrong with you? And compassion goes out the window. So sad for the mother to have lost her son. I weep for all the mothers in the world who have lost not only a son but a child.

    I have to tell how I immensely respect you for your comment on religion-again well said! I live in the bible belt and religion is always a tricky subject for me as a blogger but nonetheless, I do feel blessed.

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