I grew up in Calabasas, California, now known to the world as the home of the Kardashians. It was, and still is, a town rife with wealth and privilege. I went to high school with the children of sports legends and movie/TV stars, and my peers without fame still seemed blessed with a fortune well beyond mine. Everyone was better looking, better liked, and better funded than an awkward, skinny, pale kid who was bad at sports and incapable of speaking in complete sentences when within a ten-foot radius of the opposite sex.
Spoiler alert: that awkward, skinny, pale kid I just mentioned? It was me. Me, of all people! O woe! Woe beyond imagining! O thou baleful world, which doth cast its cosmic aspersions upon the trousers of my soul! O weep for me, the most wretched of God’s wretchedest thingees!
I find such self-pity to be silly in retrospect, but I couldn’t get enough of it back in the day. All too often, this perceived disparity between my meager blessings and everyone else’s bounty frustrated me to no end. I’d see a pretty girl, and I’d want her, and I knew I couldn’t have her. The crushing disappointment was almost physically painful. So I’d resent the girls, and I’d loathe the guys they chose instead of me.
This would occasionally lead me to indulge in dark thoughts.
Yes, I could imagine the scales of justice being balanced by me getting everything I craved and everyone else getting their comeuppance. Usually, these ugly musings involved humiliating people, not hurting them. But sometimes, I confess, the fantasies crossed the line into scenarios that are better left unblogged.
Yet in spite of all that, I’ve somehow made it to middle age without ever killing another human being. I’ve never even come close.
That’s not to say my dark thoughts never translated into real world petulance or cruelty. But it is to say that such thoughts were never allowed to fester unchecked long enough to become truly destructive. Good thoughts intruded on the bad, reminding me that what I was contemplating was inherently wrong, and that my jealous, angry instincts represented the very worst part of who I was.
As this internal struggle has raged on throughout my life, two other truths have helped the better angels of my nature stay on the winning side. The first is the recognition that this is a universal battle that all of us fight. Everyone encounters disappointment, and everyone occasionally finds themselves bogged down in spiritual mud and contemplating unacceptable options.
The second truth is an extension of the first – it’s the recognition that those I envied were all engaged in the battle, too. In my youthful resentment, I assumed the beautiful people never had problems, that they had no clue what it was like to feel awkward, abandoned, or ostracized. I was very wrong. I was also stunned to discover later in life that some of these people even envied me. Me, of all people! That floored me. Didn’t they read that part about endless woe I wrote earlier?
The point is, to paraphrase The Police song “Message in a Bottle,” none of us are alone in being alone. And the internal conflict between light and darkness is both universal and intimately personal, and we should never assume that someone else isn’t right in the thick of it.
The good news is that most of us ultimately win that battle, more or less. Very few people allow their fouler impulses to dominate their character, which speaks well for us as a species. But, as exemplified this weekend by that other Calabasas kid who shot up Santa Barbara, there are rare and heartbreaking instances where some of us not only give in to that evil, they embrace it.
I think our collective response to this kind of evil is well-intentioned – we want to think the best of everyone, and we don’t want to admit that our fellow man or woman is capable of such monstrosity. That’s why we try to defang it by coming up with therapeutic or societal explanations. I read several articles claiming that this piece of human garbage “suffered from” this or that mental disorder or condition, implying this is a clinical problem that some medicine or treatment could have fixed. I saw several tired attempts to revive hoary civic debates, as if there were some piece of legislation that could keep everyone from giving in to evil. Some of those efforts come from a good place, but they’re hampered by an unwillingness to confront ugly truths about ourselves.
It’s not just that we want to think well of others. It’s also that we don’t want to admit the commonality of their evil with our own.
Every person reading this – indeed, every person who has ever lived – has had opportunities to let the dark thoughts win. And each time the dark thoughts win, it’s easier for them to win the next time. Eventually, each of us could find ourselves in a place where we don’t even allow righteousness to offer a rebuttal. We could then make the choice to stage our own nightmarish “Day of Retribution” and convince ourselves that wickedness is justice.
For me, this incident highlighted that possibility in very stark terms. The killer was a Calabasas kid, as was I. Both of us had similar opportunities, or, in the case of girlfriend possibilities, a distinct lack thereof. Both of us felt the world was actively plotting to thwart our success, and both of us brainstormed about ways to get even.
But he indulged the darkness, and I didn’t. And he killed people, and I didn’t.
So you want to prevent this kind of atrocity in the future? You won’t do it by passing a law or prescribing a pill. You’ll do it by acknowledging the reality of evil in every soul, and you’ll do everything you can to help strengthen the forces fighting against it.
That strength comes not from the illusion that monsters like this other Calabasas kid are completely alien to us, but rather from the recognition that we could have been monsters, too, but we chose not to be.