Compassion for Monsters (and Absentee Fathers)

How a low anthropology punctures the illusions we have about those we disdain.

David Zahl / 3.8.23

The following is a choice excerpt from my book, Low Anthropology: The Unlikely Key to a Gracious View of Others (and Yourself).

And I’m thrilled to announce that the small group Study Guide to Low Anthropology is NOW AVAILABLE for free. With opening ice breakers, key quotes, and accompanying Bible verses, it’s pretty much a plug-and-play aid for small group leaders. To download, click here.

In the same way that a low anthropology dispels our illusions about the people we put on pedestals, it also punctures the illusions we have about those we disdain. To mirror an earlier observation, the chief reason we are able to view someone as thoroughly problematic is that we don’t know them very well. If we did, we would see that they are just as subject to forces beyond their control as we are. Neither of us, for example, is unscathed by childhood. Both of our hearts are distorted to some extent by fear, yet both of us are desperate to be happy and loved. Their pain may take a different shape than ours — and they may express that pain in a destructive way. But neither of us is free from hurt. The world has beaten them up too, and the more we get to know them, the more understandable their behavior will become. Our judgments may not soften to the point of apology or affection, but soften they will — toward the actor if not the action.

Nowhere does our anthropology inform our perceptions more than when it comes to misbehavior and sin. Consider your response to headlines about harassment, whether that be mistreatment of women or minorities or children. How do you react when you read the freshest set of allegations?

A high anthropologist tends to distance themselves from the wrongdoer. They insist that the guilty party is a fundamentally different type of person than they are. An incel. A bigot. A small- minded, privileged rageaholic who has played far too many video games. In this way, a high anthropology sorts people into categories: the sick versus the healthy, the sane versus the crazed, the caring versus the callous, the privileged versus the oppressed, the good versus the bad. This allows us to judge and move on. Case closed.

A low anthropologist, however, begins from the uncomfortable position of potential solidarity with the wrongdoer. There is no greater role model here than Jesus himself, who once walked into Jericho and made a beeline for its most hated member: Zacchaeus, a man who, as a tax collector, stole from his neighbors and collaborated with the even more hated Romans. Zacchaeus was certainly not considered worthy of solidarity, to say nothing of friendship; yet, he is the one who Jesus wants to connect and dine with.

As far as we non-Jesuses are concerned, I wonder if in lieu of pigeonholing the bad actor as an inhuman villain we might consider that they too are the product of a difficult personal history. They, like us, have likely absorbed the weight of others’ finitude, double- ness, and self-centeredness. Maybe the abuse they suffered as a child would make our stomach turn. Maybe no one listened to them, ever. Maybe there’s something legitimately physiological going on, such as diagnosable narcissism or sociopathy. The possibilities and combinations are endless, yet hardly ever a product of conscious choice.

Whatever the case, a low anthropology resists categories. The line between heroes and monsters tends to be less clear-cut and far more permeable than we would care to believe. So-called bad people are capable of doing good, just as much as so-called good people are capable of doing bad. As philosopher Crispin Sartwell puts it, “If we were witheringly honest, we might see a school shooter within us, or a bully or abuser of the sort that helped create people like that.” Doing so is scary because it robs us of the security we theoretically achieve when we remove such “types” of people from our sphere.

To be clear, this does not excuse anyone’s actions, nor does it dismiss the damage we do to others (and has been done to us). It merely helps explain these things. Which is vital if we are to curtail such actions in the future. While compassion may not reduce the infraction itself, neither does it amplify the damage by eating the victim alive in the way that white-hot blame can.

In this way, a low anthropology breaks apart the boxes we place one another in, boxes that can become jail cells. In the memoir My Dead Parents, Anya Yurchyshyn gives a stunning example of how this plays out. Anya’s father was killed in a car accident when she was sixteen, and her mother died of alcoholism when Anya was thirty-two. Her initial response to their deaths, she confesses, was relief. She had experienced her father as cold and mean, and her mother as ineffectual and aloof. Their disdain and contempt for each other was on display throughout her life, and she blamed her anxiety and low self-esteem on them. Anya was taken aback when, while cleaning out her mother’s house, she came across a box of passionate love letters the two had exchanged. Her father had written, “Whenever I leave you, there is an emptiness inside me, a true aching of the heart.” Her mother had responded, “Our love is wondrous; it has a life almost of its own.”

The vulnerability shocked Anya. Who were these people? She made it her mission to find out, first by visiting the Pennsylvania neighborhood where her mother grew up. She discovered that her mother’s childhood had been heartbreaking, filled with abandonment and abuse. Out of Anya’s heart began to trickle compassion for the girl and woman who had been the mother she hadn’t known.

She then flew to her father’s ancestral home in Ukraine. Much to her surprise, she discovered that he was regarded as something of a hero. After the collapse of the USSR, he had returned early and often to help rebuild the devastated town. What she had thought of as her father’s absenteeism turned out to be a devotion to those he had left behind. She simply hadn’t known.

Moreover, before she was born, her parents lost an infant son to pneumonia, which etched further pain into the marriage. They did not tell her of his existence until she was ten. Anya writes:

Devastating as it was, this information was a gift, shining a light into the murky corners of my childhood. My father policed my behavior so intensely not because he was a dictator, but because he was terrified of losing another child — his anger was misplaced grief. My mother wasn’t weak — she’d had to be unimaginably strong to survive her childhood, lose her parents, son and husband … I was the product of complicated people who’d done the best they could. Today I am proud to be their daughter — a person who’s replaced pity with compassion. That compassion opened the door to the emotional prison where I’d long kept my parents. And in turn, it freed me.

Anya’s case is not everyone’s. Sometimes the truth turns out to be uglier than we presumed, not nicer. Sometimes it is inconclusive. Either way, we write others off at our own peril, even when we feel we have every reason to — even when we’ve been forced to bear the brunt of their shortcomings.

Perhaps faith, then, is the ultimate fruit of low anthropology: the willingness to admit we do not possess all the facts, not when it comes to other people, not when it comes to ourselves, not when it comes to something as metaphysical as God. Instead, what we see as bad and final may not be, and vice versa. Indeed, the painful experience of our limitation, doubleness, and self-centeredness opens a gate through which we discover so much goodness and light, connection and compassion and hope. It is no mistake that this experience mirrors so directly the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It follows the backward pattern of how Christians believe God works in the world.

The apostle Paul’s claims make more sense in this light. In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, he writes that he is “perplexed, but not driven to despair” (4:8) when he considers the trials he’s endured. Perplexity is that which keeps him small. It is that which frees him from projection and false certainty to trust in the one who does have all the facts — the God who is more interested in ransoming those in captivity to their own backstories than judging them.

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One response to “Compassion for Monsters (and Absentee Fathers)”

  1. Jim Munroe says:

    Dave, the Hank Williams song is just DRIPPING with God’s grace. Thanks!

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