I’ve yet to meet a person that doesn’t have a monster lurking inside. Furry or hairless, large or small, furious or meek, gray or technicolor – they exist. They lash out, hurt, and hunt. Many of us long for someone who understands our villainous passenger, who understands us, but finding such empathy is arduous.
Recall the last time you empathized with someone. Maybe a friend or family member was facing a challenge in their life. Perhaps you heard a story on the news of a person who suffered a tragedy. Whatever the circumstance, you were able to put yourself in their place and identify with their pain. Often this comes from similar or shared experiences that enable us to imagine ourselves dealing with their situation. This ability is invaluable to humanity, it is our inborn empathy.
Inborn empathy is easy and socially acceptable. We weep for victims of catastrophes and tribulations. We offer our condolences and aid them in whatever capacity we can. Whether it’s a natural disaster, a car wreck, an emotional upheaval, or a crime – we want to help. Frequently, the most we can do is listen and let them know that they are not alone.
Easy empathy comes from a place of compassion, but it is also born from fear. The heartbreak of others reminds us that we too are venerable to misfortune. Our mind shifts seamlessly to how such events would wreak havoc on our lives, on how we would survive. But our natural empathy is regularly shown to have finite limits. How often do we slide on the tentacles or sharpen our teeth and remember the assaulting monster with anything besides contempt?
We may not demonize thoughtless hurricanes or relatable distracted drivers, but sympathy for wrongdoers is always scarce. Relating to the malefactors among us is uncomfortable and agitating. We cannot bare to put ourselves in their shoes because that would make us alike, it would mean that we could do such things. To admit that liars, cheats, murderers, thieves, rapists, bullies, bigots, drunk drivers, and suicide bombers are human is to admit that it could have been us.
If we are honest with ourselves, we’ll find that even the most upstanding among us are but a few personal catastrophes away from villainy. Our monsters linger in their cages, waiting to be unleashed by primal instinct. Our actions are largely determined by factors outside of our control. If your anatomy was a bit different, if your parents had treated you poorly, if you had grown up in a different country, or been raised in another religion who would you be? How would your views and actions differ? Would it be you in the defendant’s chair? Nature and nurture combine and while every result is unique, the pattern repeats and the monsters rattle their cages.
Every perpetrator is a victim. If they weren’t, there would be no victims. We have all been victimized by emotional and physical turmoil, by sadness and loss and desperation, by a world that is both wondrous and abusive. Every criminal, no matter their crime, was once a helpless infant. Acknowledging their humanity does not lessen the empathy we feel for their victims, it enhances it. By recognizing that we are all simultaneously plagued and hallowed, we admit our own imperfections. From this, we address our faults and show others how to do the same. To empathize is not to condone, it is to find our better selves.
We usually shame and blame, but neither has banished our inner evil. When we empathize, we are less inclined to victimize – even in the small ways. The path to equality and peace is paved with empathy. Some monsters have sharper teeth, more sinister souls. We do not have to accept the terror they bring, but understanding their existence and relating to them is the only way to quiet their roars.
I do not believe in heroes, but the truth is I don’t believe in villains either. We are all complex, monsters and saviors all at once. That’s what it is to be human. But does it have to be? If we live with empathy, speak with kindness, and act with compassion then we may just convince every monster to cut off their horns.