The beast without

“Isaac’s being a jerk,” my seven year-old, Isaiah, says about his older brother. They have been sledding over new-fallen snow.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because he keeps knocking me off my sled.”

“Why do you think he did that?” I ask. I’ve been trying to help my children consider how sometimes they incite one another.

“Because he’s evil.”

Well, then.

“My sisters pregnant I can’t wait to find out if im gonna be an aunt or uncle,” is what the girl tweeted. By the time I saw a screenshot of her words, they had traveled pretty widely. What an idiot, people said. Glad I’m not that stupid. I thought the same things.

Witch burning gummy bears

Some weren’t content just to mock her to one another, they went to her Twitter timeline and told her she was stupid. Because the mark of intelligence is marking stupidity of others, I guess.

I went too, because I had begun to wonder: is anyone that dumb? I scrolled through her tweets, and watched time reverse itself: from the latest, where she asked why this harassment was happening to her, and told these strangers to leave her alone, to hours earlier, before she was beaten down, when she gave back as good as she got, to days before that, before someone decided she made a nice target. She’s a girl who doesn’t always attend to her grammar and likes the things that girls like and has an okay sense of humor. She’s just a girl. She isn’t an idiot. The tweet about being an aunt or uncle was a joke.

And as it turns out, lots of people have said the same joke. Not everyone has had strangers pop out of the woodwork to belittle them for doing so, but some have. I suppose they got off easy—even this girl so widely mocked that she shut down her Twitter account­—in comparison to Justine Sacco, who tweeted a joke about AIDS before boarding a flight to Africa in 2013, only to land and discover it had traveled the globe, and that she had been portrayed as a monster.

I saw there’s a movie coming out, a retelling of the mangled-beyond-recognition Dracula story, in which he is a hero who takes on vampiric powers to save his family. As I’ve written elsewhere, this is a trend in movies, to rehabilitate monsters. It’s a curious thing that we are humanizing monsters, yet are so quick to beastialize humans.

Because he’s evil.

It was funny when my son said it, but a little chilling. You know how I worry. What if Isaiah is going to become one of those dreadful puritanical hate-preachers on low-budget cable TV? We should never have given him an Old Testament name. What if he sees with a child’s prescience that his brother really is evil? I’m failing as a parent. Failing failing failing.

So in the spirit of practicing what I preach about considering how our actions incite others, I think on the conversations they’ve overheard, in which I question someone’s motives, in which I denounce some political figure or corporate charlatan, in which I rail against the people tearing down Western civilization.

Yes, that happens a lot at our dinner table. I like to imagine one of them will write a colorful biography about their father one day.

There’s my muttering about this church or that company, about a neighbor who lets her kids run up and down the street all night. And let’s not even consider the things I say while driving.

I don’t know why we want to think the worst of people, except maybe because it allows us, in a false and perverse way, to think better of ourselves. “Thank God I’m not like that tax collector,” said the Pharisee on his holy road to hell. Isn’t that each of us, in our own hearts, every day? No matter what we’ve done, we can always find someone worse. Thank God.

We think the worst of people, and we say it, and it’s a cleverly disguised way of saying we are good people, or maybe just that if God is in the business of paying people back, there’s a long list of folks he should scorch before he turns his awful eyes to us. It’s a small and mean kind of prison-camp thinking when you ponder it, but here we are.

And here I am, and here are these children, doing as I do instead of as I say, yet again, and the hard truth is all my saying doesn’t matter one tiny damn unless I change my doing. I want them to be better than me. How I want them to be better than me. But the thing is: I can’t send them down that road alone, can I?


  1. Bo

    Great stuff Tony,

    As a smart ass firmly minted and coined in the smart alec 90s, I know that I need to throw myself under this bus more often.

    What I sincerely wonder though is this–am I just making up that there was a time when people didn’t gang up on each other like this? I don’t try to believe in big declination narratives, like “things used to be better when I was a kid” sort of stuff. But I do remember (or have created in my mind) a time when you gave crap and you took crap, and the underlying point seemed to be this communal humility. I remember thinking (I went to a very small school and lived in a small town though), that it seemed like we all had a job to make sure no one got too big for their britches and to make sure everyone got a chance to hear how their own bullshit sounded. I’m not acting like this was explicit or noble, or that no one ever got their feelings hurt, but especially as I got older, it seemed like we all began to appreciate the hard time we gave each other, that is showed something at least approximating caring about one another, to point out how silly we were being.

    But you can’t export this to the interwebs, and particularly the twitterwebs. I guess that is the idea–if you can’t open yourself to the back-and-forth volley, then it is just craven mob mentality. Not to give Levinas too much credit, but there is something to the facelessness of it all.

    Or maybe all my 90s friends secretly cry in their rooms every night, and I am oblivious and unfeeling. [stirring Dawson’s Creek music begins]…

  2. Jody

    OMG…OMG…OMG….thoughts began racing and memory flashed upon these things: Rom 7:7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. No, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the had said, You shall not covet.” and then, Rom 7:14-25, under the law….then came Rom 6:20, For when ye were the servants of sin, ye were free from righteousness…But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ….and then I went, but ‘There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are IN Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the (Holy) Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.’ (Rom 8:1-2)
    All of which landed on ‘Here is Mercy, and Grace! ‘For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness (generosity of God) of the law might be fulfilled IN us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit….But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God well in you…And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness (generosity of God)…For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but…the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father….” (heck, Rom 8….read it again and again…)
    So, now I came to, ‘Thank the LORD for His gift of life on that tree/cross! Thank God for His unmerited, unbound mercy and grace for making a way where there is no way!’
    Tough stuff Tony, tough. Thank you for hitting it on the nail (again)…..

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