Tuesday, Nov 26 2013 06:00 AM

How could it happen? The awful surprise

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A loving mother drowns her children. A decorated soldier prowls through homes in Afghanistan, killing people in their beds. A quiet, popular community leader kills himself and his wife. A respected minister runs away with his secretary. How could it happen?

We see these things in the papers from time to time. And every time, friends, families, neighbors ask "How could it happen?" He was such a good man. She was such a devoted mother. He was such a fine soldier. How did it happen?

We create a story to help us understand. We say she snapped, he's a hypocrite, he was demon-possessed, he's a nut case -- whatever combination of words help us deal with it. We blame stress, or depression, or mental illness, or bad character, or trauma... Mostly, we don't really understand. But it happens. And there may come a time when something hits a sore spot inside, and we shudder; it could have been me.

All the great religions of the world have struggled with this stubborn reality. The yetzer ha tov and the yetzer ha ra in Judaism, the often misunderstood "original sin" in Christianity, Karma, natural justice, the mythology of flawed gods, exorcism, and other ideas and practices reflect that reality. In the scientific world we attempt to delve deeply into the vagaries of human behavior: the workings of the brain, early trauma, PTSD, disease, depression. And we have made a great deal of progress.

But much of the mystery of the dark side remains. The reality is that sometimes very ugly things come from very beautiful people. We just can't tell who it will be, or when. We all have our explanations, and sometimes they help. Some of them even make a bit of sense. But there are always lots of loose ends.

I was a pastor for a long time. Vulnerable women, lonely women can be a minefield for a pastor. They make us feel so needed, so important. I have had several friends who stepped on one of those mines. I never did. Was I just lucky, or smarter, or more spiritual or had a deeper faith? Was I somehow better than those guys who crossed the line? I don't think so. I know what's inside.

It took me a while to learn the value of being aware of both my capacity for good and my capacity for evil. When I can see in myself what I judge in other people, it's harder to judge them. When I try to divide my world into good guys and bad guys, I realize it just doesn't work that way. Labels never tell the real story. When I talk about the great virtue of humility, I realize I have a lot to be humble about. It helps me to acknowledge the very practical reality that sometimes I don't know what I'm talking about, so I need to be a bit skeptical and a bit more humble about my opinions and expectations. I have less need to con myself.

When I don't expect perfection from you and you don't expect perfection from me, we're both a lot better off, and lots more fun to be around.

We're all imperfect people who belong to an imperfect species living on an imperfect planet in a mid-sized star system in a rather ordinary galaxy in a pretty scary universe. We're stuck here with about seven billion other people a lot like ourselves, and we can't really avoid bumping up against some of them now and then. The awareness that both of us are partly wise and partly foolish, partly right and partly wrong, partly nice and partly nasty, can make life a much more satisfying journey.

JIM DINSMORE lives in Tehachapi. His column, "The Human Scene" appears regularly in the Tehachapi News.

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