Thoughts Of Love

This month’s issue features two authors discussing the challenges of forgetting history while writing about history. That is, the author knows what’s coming, but the characters don’t. In Caleb’s Crossing, Geraldine Brooks’s narrator cannot tell the story of a seventeenth century Native American attending Harvard University as a kind of sad prelude of the violence and conflict to come. Similarly, the tension driving Erik Larson’s recounting of life in 1933 Berlin (In the Garden of the Beasts) derives entirely from the story’s two central characters, the U. S. ambassador and his daughter, not knowing that the men beside them in the opera and telling jokes at dinner parties, even the giant swastikas hanging outside public buildings, would soon be synonymous with evil.

Evil, however, is almost always a label for what has happened, not what is happening. We can’t undo what we have done, and if what has been done hurts another, the temptation is to condemn the perpetrator to monstrousness, to strip him of free choice, to see his violence and crimes not as the expression of a choice, but of simply what he is, as if he had no power to choose otherwise, the same as a cat cannot choose to bark.

Yet in every single moment of my life I feel the burden and liberty of choice. There is nothing in the world that can be done to me that could deprive me of the power of choice. You could put me in a prison cell, chop off my arms and legs, gouge out my eyes, and still I could choose, if only what I am thinking. It is quite literally who I am. I am not my body. My body is a tool to express my choices, not that which makes those choices.

We call Nazis evil in part to make ourselves feel safer. Those men did those things because they were evil, as if they had been born deprived of the power to choose otherwise. They are different than us. They are monsters. And yet the moment I condemn another to monstrousness, even Adolf Hitler himself, I allow that it is somehow possible to lose the power of choice. If it is true of Adolf Hitler, then it could be true for me. The moment I believe in monsters is the moment I believe it is somehow possible to be prevented from thinking a thought of love.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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