killing the buddha in aurora

Eating lunch at a Taiwanese style buffet this afternoon, I experienced a bit of pop culture dissonance, when something vaguely “favorite instrumental love song from a Disney Film” followed Eminem and Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie” on the music piped-in music. I’m not sure how these two songs ended up back-to-back, without commentary, either canned or live — my immediate neighbors, for example, wore sanitation jumpsuits and repeatedly asked each other if they had had enough to eat, seemingly oblivious to the music radio faux pas — but I’m thinking maybe the manager had purchased a shanzhai mix of “top love songs, 2010” to enhance the buffet’s image as “cool” and “not neidi“. It may also have been a moment of pastiche prophecy. Not a few alternative rockstars have transitioned from producing troubled hits to belting Disney classics, and I see no reason why either Eminem or Rihanna shouldn’t follow in the footsteps of Elton John and Melissa Etheridge.

I started actively listening to the music when I realized that I was humming along to the chorus of “Love the Way You Lie”. The melody hooked me not only because I like Rihanna’s voice, which is especially poignant in contrast to the desperate anger of Eminem’s lyrics, but also because I know too much (or not enough) about their lives and the way that themes of violence and redemption, suffering and atonement, yearning and self-justification weave through and between their public and private performances. Indeed, whatever their actual relationship to and experience of brutality, Eminem and Rihanna seem apt symbols for the US American confusion of pain with love; we work really, really hard, to sell the story that some killings are justified, and some beings exist to be shot — Oscar Wilde in prison, as if murder were the expression of bravery, while the rest of us cowards go on about wounding each other in social acceptable ways:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

And Oscar Wilde has nothing on the US American romance with death, destruction, mayhem, and murder. Consider alien invasion movies, where the aliens exist to be killed, and in process reveal the courage and fears of white (or whitened) humanity. Or westerns, where those black hatted fellers “get what’s coming to them”. I have joked that the formula for a US American soap opera is boy + girl + murder, and happy endings simply mean that the murder has brought the two characters together, while unhappy endings are more “hard core” because one of the lovers is the victim, while the other survives to achieve some kind of vengeance. And yet. When we stop to think about it, the extent to which US Americans confuse levels of hurt with intensities of love is distressing.

In thinking through the Aurora Massacre, Patrick S. O’Donnell at Religious Left Law refers to Erich Fromm’s idea of the “pathology of normalcy“, which refers to the ways that culture shapes human interaction, or a socially patterned defect. Importantly, on Fromm’s reading members of the same culture not only share the same defect, but also share behavioral patterns that enable us to live with a defect without becoming ill.

It is as if each culture provided the remedy against the outbreak of manifest neurotic symptoms which would result from the defect produced by it.

In this sense, Eminem and Rihanna might be thought of as symbolizing the American normal, enjoying a violent buzz but not actually killing anyone. In fact, because we know that love hurts, we expect some form of abuse or pain, but within limits. Not surprisingly, in our current fascination with BDSM, US Americans learn to ride the violence and pain to gendered forms of ecstasy.

Fromm also notes that for a minority the cultural pattern does not work. This “not working” has two forms — the expression of the pathology as individual neurosis and the recognition of the pathology as what it is, an unhealthy pattern of interaction. Here’s the point: a neurotic expression of normal All-American love would be if Eminem set Rihanna on fire and watched her burn to death. Neurotic on Fromm’s thesis because the underlying logic of burning a lover to death is the same as that of “normal Americans”; the more extreme one’s love, the more violently it will be expressed. And yes, we all know and derive various levels of pleasure from the formulation total love = total annihilation.

And there’s the rub. At Aurora, James Holmes crossed the fuzzy line separating normal from neurotic, the line in which its okay to play and sing and read about killing others, just not okay to actually kill.

More hopefully, however, there is a second maladaptation to the pathology of normalcy. In this maladaptation, an individual recognizes the pathology of normal life for what it is — a problematic pattern of interaction. We recognize, for example, that abuse within relationships is not an expression of love and thus our job is to learn to change hurtful patterns of behavior. We realize the need to nurture ourselves and others in non-violent relationships. We understand that this is precisely where we need help because changing deeply rooted patterns of interaction, patterns that are reinforced through popular culture and the lived expectations of friends and family, as well as our own conflicted desire requires courage and faith and the willingness to risk normal life for a healthier, happier life. A life, we might say, in which killing the buddha is not a made-for-telesion movie, but a koan.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama reminds us:

Before we can generate compassion and love, it is important to have a clear understanding of what we understand compassion and love to be. In simple terms, compassion and love can be defined as positive thoughts and feelings that give rise to such essential things in life as hope, courage, determination, and inner strength. In the Buddhist tradition, compassion and love are seen as two aspects of the same thing: Compassion is the wish for another being to be free from suffering; love is wanting them to have happiness. 

May the survivors of Aurora find healing. May we in the United States find the courage to look seriously at the normalcy of violence in our relationships. And, if we cannot yet love James Holmes, may we find the strength of heart not to wish him ill.