Friday, March 18, 2005

Unconditional Compassion

Like much of the nation, I sat spellbound in front of my TV last Friday and Saturday as I watched the awful saga of Brian Nichols unfold. I have always opposed the death penalty and preached the need for unconditional spiritual love and compassion for all no matter what they do. But I confess that vindictive hatred toward Nichols flared inside me as I saw accounts of his cold and senselessly murderous actions juxtaposed with photos of his victims and stories of what wonderful people they were and how devastating their deaths were to their coworkers, friends, and families.

I'm ashamed to admit it, but a dark, ugly part of me briefly entertained fantasies of a vigilante force of police officers apprehending Nichols outside the public eye and secretly whisking him off to a secluded hideout where they would, to quote the Ving Rhames character in Pulp Fiction, "get medieval on his ass."

But these thoughts and all the hatred they fed and fed off of vanished when Nichols stopped being the viciously cruel Terminator and abstract embodiment of evil incarnate and became instead the hapless human being I saw meekly submitting to law enforcement personnel and shuffling along in handcuffs and leg shackles under a throng of security worthy of Hannibal Lecter.

And when I heard friends and family of Nichols interviewed, media reports on Nichols' childhood and adolescence, and Ashley Smith's riveting account of her time as Nichol's hostage, I not only no longer hated this man, but I felt growing compassion for him. Here was a young man who could have pretty much had it all. He was born into a middle class family and, by all indications, enjoyed a solid upbringing by responsible and loving parents. He was blessed with good looks, an easygoing disposition, articulate intelligence, and enough athletic talent to land him a spot on the football team of a Division 2 school. Yet, he dropped out of school after three semesters, briefly attended and played for another college, was arrested several times for disorderly conduct, worked as a computer technician for UPS, and ended up on trial for vindictively kidnapping and repeatedly raping his ex-girlfriend for leaving him after he impregnated another woman. Then came the terrible, inexplicable, murderous climax of last week.

Some might hate Nichols all the more for throwing away his seeming advantages in such a spectacularly violent and destructive way. But I look at this man and think that something must have gone radically haywire inside his brain or mind to lead him so far astray of the promising path that once lie before him. Even if no one can yet or ever explain what it was, there had to be something, and how terribly, terribly sad rather than contemptible to see him ruin his life and the lives of so many others because of it!

But beyond the sorrow and compassion I felt for Nichols, I felt moved literally to tears by the way Ashley Smith reached out to Nichols and connected with his soul with her compassionate and loving heart and simple but profound faith in God. A cynical person might say that she was merely pretending to care about him in order to save her skin, or that the extreme threat Nichols posed afflicted her with Stockholm syndrome. But I want to believe that the caring and concern that Ashley Smith expressed to and for Nichols was neither pretense nor pathology, but the liberated expression of the unconditional love and compassion that lie not only at the core of her being but at the glorious center of each and every one of us. I want to believe that the Lord within Ashley Smith's heart spoke to and reached the Lord buried deep within Brian Nichols' heart and convinced him to do the right thing when he could so easily have done something far, far worse.

When I speak of the "Lord within," I'm not talking about the Lord of Christian or any other popular religious convention. I'm speaking of the "which than which there is no whicher" that I want to believe constitutes our essence and the very fabric of the kosmos, but whose radiance expresses itself through most of us via 'random acts of kindness' to strangers and in more abiding love and devotion--though still too-often fraught with conditions, qualifications, and fluctuations--to family and friends.

Many would no doubt smile at my flowery words and say that it's all well and good to talk about seeing the "Lord within" others until they threaten your life. Then you should regard and despise that person as your enemy and do everything in your power to escape or neutralize him. If Ashley Smith had run or grabbed one of the unguarded guns and used it when she first had the chance, she might very well have saved her life for her own sake and for her daughter's without placing it in the prolonged and terrible jeopardy she did. She was very, very lucky that things turned out the way they did, and the rest of us should not assume that we would meet with the same fate if we reached out to our captor the way Ashley did to hers.

That may be true. But I'm glad that Ashley Smith acted the way she did and that Brian Nichols responded the way he did without harming her or anyone else, including himself. And I can't help but believe that if more people in this world were like Ashley Smith, there would be far fewer people like Brian Nichols plunging off the deep end into awful violence and murder. I also believe that even if acting like Ashley Smith got me killed, maybe, just maybe it's better to live a shorter life with a heart filled with unconditional love and compassion and faith in the core of divine goodness in all of us than to live a longer life brimming with overriding mistrust, anger, hatred, and desperate fear. That is, maybe it’s better to live a short time in heaven than a long time in hell.

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