Like most Americans, when I learned that twenty children and six adults had been massacred in Newtown, Connecticut, I recoiled. Like most parents, my next thought was for my own son, the image I retain of his happy, smiling self for one moment replaced by an image of his tiny body lying twisted on the ground. Even as I write these words, an emotion I rarely feel—one I often can’t even make myself feel—threatens to overwhelm me.
And then, of course, came anger. I wished I could bring Adam Lanza back to life to ask him why he did this, and then beat him to death myself. Many might be surprised to learn that a physician would feel this way, but the sad truth is that after nearly twenty years of practicing medicine, my ability to muster compassion even for angry, demanding, and ungrateful patients has eroded. How then am I to find compassion for someone like Adam Lanza? And more to the point, why should I even try?
But when I ask myself this question, I realize I have an answer: despite our nearly universal attraction to the belief that human beings come in one of only two flavors—good and evil—and that evil acts abolish the humanity of those who commit them, I know full well that the most noble and kind among us are capable of committing great evil; and more, as a famous Buddhist saying goes, that even a heartless villain can love his wife and children.
We don’t hate or condemn a three-year-old child who points his father’s gun at his brother and pulls the trigger because we understand that he doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions. Why then, I ask myself, should we hate adults who lie, cheat, steal, or even murder—even when they commit these heinous crimes against us or the people we love? We may think they should know better, but wisdom isn’t an inevitable consequence of aging. Why then shouldn’t we feel compassion for an adult as we would for a three-year-old? Why not, in fact, as if he or she had once been our three-year-old? For were they not at one point someone else’s? My heart cries out for the children and teachers who Adam Lanza killed, for their families and their friends. But it cries too for Adam, who to me, ultimately, was nothing other than a three-year-old boy hiding in a twenty-year-old body.
If we can internalize two premises, that we all want to be happy more than anything else but that many of us are profoundly confused about how to become so—as Adam Lanza so obviously was, whether we ultimately understand him to have been mentally ill or not—we may be able to interest ourselves more in understanding people, in figuring out the reasons they do the things they do, than in condemning them. Not that our sense of righteous outrage at the actions of those who hurt us or the ones we love is misplaced or unjustified. But we can condemn such actions, we can even punish such people—as we must when laws are broken—without pretending that such people have ceased to deserve our compassion. Without forgetting they were once small and full of hope for a good and happy life. That they are in reality only tragically deluded—deluded into thinking that they must harm others to lessen their own pain or to find joy. For in refusing to dismiss the humanity of those our emotions tell us deserve only our hatred, we find that which is best in ourselves.
Alex Lickerman is an internal medicine physician at the University of Chicago who blogs at Happiness in this World. He is the author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self.