Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Poison trees

Residents of Chicago are by now well aware that its school board president, Michael Scott, died a couple days ago, apparently of a suicide, although the police department is still investigating the matter. It is quite touching to see the accolades and what appears to be the true and sincere sadness expressed by the elected officials who claimed Mr. Scott as a friend.

Before the death, I knew very little about Mr. Scott, save for some accusations last summer that he might have been trying to profit from the Chicago Olympics search through some real estate deal. I bring up this accusation not to speak ill of the dead; in fact, I have no idea whether the accusation is true.

Rather, I bring it up to examine more closely a disturbing tendency that I, and perhaps almost everybody else, am guilty of: feeding our own enmity toward others. In the past months, if I had thought of Mr. Scott at all, it was that he was a member of the "Richard M. Daley machine," which ever since I moved to Chicago has progressively disgusted me. So I think the "machine" is corrupt and represents part of what is wrong with Chicago. Fine. I'm entitled to my opinion as much as anyone else is.

The point is, though, the objects of my dislike--Mr. Daley, Mr. Stroger, et al.--are humans and have the right to life, liberty and happiness as much as anyone. (I used the word "dislike" because I hope "enmity" is too strong a word. But the simplest and most honestly held emotions can escalate into something not so simple and honest.)

In the hustle and bustle of politics, of charges and counter charges, of political "crusades" against our "enemies," it's easy to go too far and forget what is important in life.

We--or at least I--should remember that. There are people, some of whom used to be close friends and others who I have never been friends with, who I dislike very strongly. It is important to resist the tendency to enmity, and if the tendency cannot be easily resisted, at least it must be acknowledged for what it is: something dangerous. If anything bad were to happen to the people I claim to dislike, I would--at least I hope I would--be saddened at that person's suffering.

The evil of enmity is that it blinds us to others' suffering. In its less pure form, it merely blinds us to the possibility of suffering. Therefore a tragic event like the death of Mr. Scott--as a result of which Mayor Daley started tearing up during a news interview--brings me back to my senses. In its purer form, enmity blinds us to suffering itself, or leads us the wrathful to rejoice in the suffering of others. That is something I would like to work against.

It is helpful to remember what William Blake wrote a couple hundred years ago:
A Poison Tree

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
UPDATE(11-19-09): I edited this post today to clarify some things. I have also changed the title of the post.


Laura(southernxyl) said...

I know exactly what you mean.

Sometimes I remind myself that whoever-it-is that I am tempted to wish ill to, was made in the image of God, and Jesus shed his blood for him. That jerks me up straight.

It's hard sometimes to avoid the schadenfreude, though, when people flout both the law and decent standards of behavior, and finally get their comeuppance.

theolderepublicke said...


I originally wanted my post to say something like: "If you have an enemy, you should imagine them dead and that would bring you back to your senses about what's really important." But then I thought that might be a slippery slope and run the danger of actively wishing someone ill

Yes, it is hard to about the Schadenfreude, especially when one is the "victim" of someone else's behavior.

Thanks for your comment!

Anonymous said...

It's interesting. Sometimes, it takes more energy to wish someone ill and to hate then to just leave it alone. Although I don't usually wish people ill-will, the times that I have tend to make me feel worse than better. I really do believe that it's easier to love than to hate. If people knew better, they would do better. When they do wrong it's because they don't know better; they don't know how to show tolerance, acceptance, and love. That's what I think. Nice entry. It really makes one think. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. You are a stellar writer and you always have good things to say! :)