I don’t understand why some people find joy inflicting pain on others. I’ve never understood why someone would choose to be a villain. But, I do know some people do. Perhaps it’s that they see so much ugliness in themselves that they can’t tolerate seeing beauty anywhere else.
Sometimes the world just becomes too much. For much of my professional life as first a police officer and then journalist. I’ve had a front row seat to some truly horrific moments. And admittedly, those experiences have helped shaped who I am. When I was working on a social media startup, I had a business meeting with an investor from Chicago. He wanted to feel me out to make sure I was qualified to be on the team and immediately started grilling me aggressively as a power move. At some point in the conversation he asked me if he intimidated me, because he intimidates a lot of people.
I looked at him in the eye and said, “Mr. I’ve had to arrest a Vietnam veteran with a loaded AK-47 who told me he was going to cut out my liver and fry it up with butter and onions because that’s how he used to do it in Nam. As you see, my liver is still with me, so no. You don’t intimidate me.”
We got along famously after that.
That darkness is a valuable teacher. It teaches you how not to sweat the small stuff. When you’ve spent the afternoon wrestling a guy into a police car, who believes he’s Jesus and rips his own hair out because he doesn’t feel pain or hearing the stories of refugees escaping death squads, your waiter getting your order wrong at dinner just doesn’t seem like a big deal.
But it also starts to grate on you when the person next to you is acting like it is. You just have to keep reminding yourself that they haven’t seen the things you’ve seen.
At the height of the Mexican border wall debates in the U.S., I met a teenage boy from Bangladesh at the bus station in Brownsville, TX. He jumped the fence in Tijuana and gotten caught by border patrol. Months earlier, he’d fled Bangladesh in fear for his life. His father belonged to the minority political party and he was marked for death. He was given an ultimatum; swear allegiance to us or die. And so he traveled for thousands of miles. Over oceans, through jungles and across deserts. He was robbed, he was threatened and he was exhausted when the 17 year old reached the fence in Tijuana.
On the other side, he had family and safety waiting for him.
I asked him why he decided to jump the fence and he looked at me and simply said, After everything I’ve been through, do you think a little fence meant anything to me?
But there is a price to be paid for cozying up to the darker side of human nature. It starts to grow within you. As Nietzsche put it. “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”
But, I’ve also seen some of the most beautiful. It seems a life I was made for, traveling around and telling stories about the things I see. This became the dream that I’m currently trying to realize. To be able to sail the world and tell stories. To give others a chance to peer over horizons with me and experience real stories about interesting people. In the early 2000’s I was on assignment in the Democratic Republic of Congo working on a story about a United Methodist bishop who had rallied an entire region to rebuild in the face of the Congolese civil war. The guy had survived assassination attempts and not only had the idea of making the world around him better, but was actually pulling it off. People were rebuilding their lives into something better. The year before they were filling mass graves. By the time I was there, they were building a hospital and training nurses.
But I wasn’t in Congo anymore. I was still on the border where the monsters were still in charge. And that was wearing on me. And that’s about the time I picked up an assignment back in Arkansas to hang out with some monks…