We Might Have Been Friends

Who told you
who I was?
Who cast the shadow
of their own bitterness
across the vision
of your honest eyes?

Who was it
that suggested
hurting me
with your disdain
was the proper thing
to put me
in my place?

Who was it,
made you feel
so small
that to feel big at all
and safe
you must diminish me?

Does concensus
of like-persuaded views
convert
delusion into truth?

Does being wrong
together
make the wrong
a right?

How do you weigh
the cost
to your own soul
of burning witches,
gassing Jews,
bombing populations
who occupy
the ground you want?

And, in the end,
when you
and all your pals
have gathered
to yourselves
the sum of everything
you thought
I wanted,
how will you see
yourself?

I’ve heard that the 20s are the cruelest age, because their social power has grown but compassion has not, nor the realization of how great their effectiveness on the hearts and souls of others: They have not realized yet their power to cause real pain.

But the dynamic of scapegoating comes into play at an earlier age.

I had the experience of being targeted by Laura, Susan and Margaret–three unkind, pettily vicious girls who made my life as much hell as they could, when we were classmates in 7th grade. At the end of the year, they had the gall to come up to me, and say, “We didn’t mean it, we’re sorry, we really like you…” by way of being magnanimous. I asked, “So what was wrong with the rest of the year?” They did not take that well, and went huffing off, happy that I had made it all my own fault.

Bullies make wounds that don’t heal, that make crippling scars that never go away. For years, I thought they, or people like them, were still on the fringes, watching, sneering, condemning… It took me many years to stop caring what they thought or said or did. It has reverberated through my entire life.

Sometimes it is the power of one person, focused through the lens of the many. And so we have Jonestown, and the Little Bighorn, and Aushwitz and bombs in Belfast, and genocide in Ruanda, Somalia, and eastern Europe, and women starving behind their veils and doors in Iran, and soldiers marching steadfastly into the guns of other soldiers pointed at their hearts wherever in the world armies face off, and in all the places where someone believes their own righteousness supercedes the lives and free souls of everyone else.

I hope that the effect of this poem will be to open the eyes of some nice-enough, decent-enough people who get caught up in that dynamic, because they are casual members of a clique that has opposed itself to some person, or ethnicity, or idea, but they have not fully realized or taken responsibility for the effects they are part of. Respecting the most powerful, the guiding personality of the group, they accept without much discrimination that what that leader says and does must be all right. They cede their own morals and ethics to those of the Alpha, and ignore their own better judgement.

It is in our nature to make cliques and to use the power of the many against the one who shows weakness or difference. Humans do it, just as do chimpanzees, rats and sharks. Some animals seem incapable of transcending their instincts. But primates, including chimpanzees, gorillas and ourselves, have proven the ability to rise above primitive urgings, to consciously choose a path that embraces compassion, and perceives the longer-range benefits of altruism.

This is a choice that must be made by each of us, independent of our clans and cliques. It is the mark of our humanity, our integrity, and the measure of our maturity as human beings, that we have this capability to choose. It is, perhaps, the one thing that makes us more than just “animals with pants.”

2006

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