It is 04:21 and I am still up. So is my fundraiser. Please, donate and/or share. Sharing helps, too, as awareness should be raised to help prevent further suffering.
When I was 11, I read a book called The Last Unicorn. It is considered a masterpiece of fantasy, and that’s actually how I found it: It was in a collection among other masterpieces of the fantasy and scifi genre in our bookcase in our living room. I had picked one of these at random — title unseen — and was rather disappointed that the book I chose was about the pure and conventionally beautiful unicorn. Out of all the fantastic beasts I had read about, the kinds I preferred had infamously dark or unpredictable elements, such as dragons, vampires (not the vegan, sparkling, or atoning kind), jinn, Judeo-Christian demons like incubi and succubi (yes, at 11), etc. These beasts were more interesting to me because I felt their darkness and violence created complexity, depth, making them have more room to explore, and that piqued my interest. The darkness and bloodlust of vampires later made way for an interest in compulsive serial killers and an in-depth exploration of psychopathy and sociopathy. That I can thank Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray for: an obsession with remorselessness, destrucive selfishness, and an absent moral compass. At the risk of sounding like I’m trying to be a unicorn myself, there was nothing more mysterious to me than those topics. Truthfully, I think one of the reasons I explored it was so I could learn how our darknesses do tie us to another, even when at their most destructive. I have done horrible things myself, but I needed to understand why people treated me and others the way they do. Why I myself have done horrible things when I never consciously wanted to be a selfish person. (But who consciously wants to be when they see no reason to do so?)
Providing no excuses (neither for myself nor for others), at least I understand now.
At 11, The Last Unicorn strengthened ideas and feelings I already had inside me. The heavy, sad stone of solitude made me connect with her more than I would’ve liked to. Described as “a vain creature, as unicorns always are,” I did not like her by the second page. But it was written so beautifully and so emotionally and in a way that I could relate. By the end I cried hours for her, as I felt greatly close to her own suffering: neither a part of her world nor theirs. This theme is what makes me identify most with Buffy from BtVS, as well.
Humans are very much like this.
Photographers, for instance, are taught that the human eye is attracted to itself; that a portrait of a person is most effective when the eyes are involved, and those will be the first detail a viewer’s sight locates. I know this is true for myself. Humans are more interested in stories about humans or humanoid (or anthropormorphized) characters. We tend to empathize more with one another when we see in each other reflections of ourselves. This is one reason that fascist governments flourish on espousing hatred of “the other.” In the bigger picture, there is no such thing as an “other,” but there are noticeable differences between us in terms of culture, religion, appearance, etc, and this is what fascism thrives on: Driving the wedge between us with those details and scrambling the effective communication of the language that connects us all.
The more “other” someone seems than ourselves, the less likely we will understand them or feel for them or look at “the bigger picture.” I feel that words like compassion, mercy, love, and empathy have such broad definitions, and many people believe that acting those words out is the same as being passive, as tolerating the unforgivable, or even defending the indefensible. In my own dictionary, those words are not words anymore that enable but do truly heal.
We often villify those who have hurt us and/or hurt those we love or those we perceive have hurt us and/or hurt those we love. We want to be absolutely nothing like them. Whether true injustices towards us have been committed or we think they have been, our feelings are very real to us. Repression makes it worse in the long-run. But we also have to remember that though our feelings are real to us, that does not make them objective reality or actions we want to carry through because of our feelings justified.
So, what is objective reality?
Honestly, who knows? There is no sentient being who has a grip on this, and if you believe in a god or gods, then no sentient being physically among us on earth right now, at least. Organized religion has tried to answer this by producing its own laws, systems, books, hierarchies, but how many of them are right, if any? The current estimate is that there are over 4,000 active faiths in the world. There is, and always has been, persistent discussion about how laws are inherently theological or that theology is what drives human ethics, but religion as vague and truly personal and private as it is, can be warped to “justify” anything: the Salem Witch trials, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition. Aristotle said, “The law is reason free from passion,” but how much passion goes into our legislation, a successful conviction, the determination for sentencing? Our values are shaped by our feelings, whether religious or areligious, cultural or individual, but all the more reason to be aware of why we feel them and what the possible consequences of acting on their direction are in any given situation. I believe that advocates strongly for the separation of church and state.
Subjectivity has its merits. It gives us our individuality and passion(s.) Our subjectivity makes us who we are and is formed by our complex webs of our experiences, personality matrix, genetics, and influences. It makes us all our own, our selves, and when healthily explored, it helps us tailor our own lives to our needs. I feel there is no such thing as true objectivity. It is the last unicorn left in the universe: rare and pure. Attempts to catch it with a golden bridle break it into a Trojan horse, whose subsequent actions then mirror the subjectivity of their captor.
Another definition that probably varies for everyone, but I believe the pursuit of objectivity is a neverending journey of wisdom and the practice of adapting with that wisdom. It is compassion in the sense that you make the effort to understand, you exhaust the connections, but you ensure not to enable or excuse.
There are people who will never change because they will never see the point in doing so. An adult who completely lacks empathy will never see the benefit of genuinely experiencing it, which is why careful and appropriate intervention in hurt, violent, and/or selfish children is so immensely important. Something most serial killers have in common is a history of being victims of abuse or violence themselves, having rage, aggression, or other destructive behaviors in pre-adolescence that go either unchecked or severely punished, neglect and abuse both encouraging similar or worse behaviors in adulthood. I have been abused and neglected, too, from many directions and from many adults who I should have been able to trust. I have a strong distrust of people, and I have done horrible things to mask or (ineffectively) cope with my pain. I often feel isolated or alone and almost always misunderstood. I share these traits with many infamous serial killers, but I don’t (and have never) torture(d) animals nor kill(ed) people. I understand their darkness to a degree, and I won’t pretend not to just because I feel that what they have done is fundamentally wrong and disgusting. But again, that doesn’t make any of their crimes understandable in terms of tolerance, true accountability and genuine empathy are necessary for progress, and if they cannot provide those, it becomes clear that the cost of their subjectivity has burned their last bridge to healthy functioning. The plot twist of this post is that this does not apply just to serial killers, but to everyone.
“Don’t worry. The world isn’t like high school. People change. They grow up.”
There’s a song by Bowling for Soup called “High School Never Ends.” Every time I hear people say this, I think of this song and how painfully true it is at its core. I naïvely thought that being among adults only would be different than the cafeteria in my high school or the hallways in middle school or the playground in elementary, but it’s not. Studies suggest that bar immense traumas later in life, people’s personalities fully develop prior to puberty. What ultimately makes people change in life is exposure to new wisdoms and their willingness to absorb them. Humans, like hobbits, are creatures of habit who value our creature comforts. Some of us might be more adventurous, even thrill-seeking, others might be more active or athletic, but we often stay where we are in terms of familiarity, especially when we are noticeably unhappy. There are hundreds of self-help books on breaking bad habits for a reason. Many of our vices are potentially positive traits dressed up as bad habits. They’re vices because they’re consistent behaviors that either hurt ourselves or hurt others or both. Sometimes, they become symptoms. In the case of personality disorders, especially Cluster B, a person develops very destructive or self-destructive traits in childhood in order to make sense of the world around them, then carries these traits into adulthood as behaviors they subconsciously feel as integral to what I think of as one’s soul’s (or psychological) survival. This means PDs are often harder to treat, because a person feels their damaging or self-damaging behaviors are aligned with the preservation of their inherent selves, whereas others often feel those behaviors have more to do with their values, traditions, or experiences. The difference seems slight on paper but is marginal to a person’s development and the efficacy of certain treatments (e.g. CBT), and is one of the reasons I fiercely support incorporating C-PTSD into the DSM as a formal diagnosis.
To clarify the reason this difference is so marginal, it is only possible for someone to change when they are aware of what needs to change and feel it is beneficial enough to change it. In the case of values, traditions, and experiences, those things can and often do change — even if the person themselves does not — making a person more interpersonally and intrapersonally aware and thus, more aware of possible benefits.
However, that awareness itself is not the answer. Ultimately, a genuine desire to implement change is what will lead to change. (You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink, and even a unicorn becomes a horse when bridled.)
But awareness is the essential catalyst.
This is why open communication is important; why accessibility and exposure to information, other people’s experiences and stories, a diverse collection of art (always assume I’m including all mediums when I say “art”), philosophy, history, science, law, and theology are all important; this is why it is important for you to share your story and for you to read stories by people and about people who you don’t think are “like” you. Awareness is the essential catalyst for positive metamorphoses, because it challenges the worst aspect of our subjectivity: the thought that our pain outweighs our right to happiness or another person’s right to happiness. It is important to note here that true happiness is healthy happiness, and destructive motivations will never cause true happiness.
The unicorn will never be captured, but the light they leave in their wake is worth pursuing. It makes us see where we didn’t before, helping us to become a better person and helping us to contribute to making a better world.