Lazy Grief

For a year or two in college I was obsessed with the film “The Interpreter.” It’s a great movie overall but there is one scene that I came back to over and over. Where the woman, who had been a radical activist in her native African country, explains why she left and began working for the UN.

“Everyone who loses somebody wants revenge, on God if they can’t find anyone else. But in Africa, in Matobo, the Ku believe that the only way to end grief is to save a life. 

If someone is murdered, a year of mourning ends with a ritual that we call the Drowning Man Trial. There’s an all-night party beside a river. At dawn, the killer is put in a boat. He’s taken out on the water and he’s dropped. He’s bound so that he can’t swim. The family of the dead then has to choose.

They can let him drown, or they can save him. The Ku believe that if the family lets the killer drown, they’ll have justice but spend the rest of their lives in mourning. But if they save him, if they admit that life isn’t always just…That very act can take away their sorrow. 

Vengeance is just a lazy form of grief.”

Around the same time I was fixated on this monologue, I watched “Man on Fire.” Cinematographically, it is an amazing movie. Beautiful filmed, and well-acted. For a violent film, it has a surprising amount of sensitivity to characterization, but I couldn’t enjoy it. Instead, it grieved me deeply.

If you have not seen it, “Man on Fire” tells the story of a former assassin, Creasy, who was hired to be the bodyguard of a little girl, Pita. Before meeting her, he drank himself to sleep most nights contemplating if God could ever forgive him. Considering suicide. He was cold and detached when he began protecting Pita. Her friendship and unconditional love give him new hope for redemption.

When Pita is kidnapped, and believed to be dead, his hope for redemption dies as well. He seeks vengeance. He tortures and kills every person remotely involved as he tracks her kidnappers. In the end, he discovers that the rumor of her death was a lie. He exchanges his life for hers, but by that time he is already a dead man.

The title of the film reminds me of the beginning of a Stars’ album, “When there is nothing left to burn, set yourself on fire.” Creasy does just this.  As a result, Pita returns to a world of ash. Her father and bodyguard both gone, just when she must feel she needs them most.

It was ironic to me that what should have been such a triumphant moment, when Creasy discovered she is alive and exchanges his life for hers, is actually devastating. His vengeance seems utterly lazy and wasteful. The life that was the symbol of his redemption becomes the symbol of his condemnation.

Then and now, the ending reminds me of a line from Too Late the Phalarope (one of my favorite books), “An offender must be punished, I don’t argue that. But to punish and not to restore, that is the greatest of all offenses.” The first time I watch it, I felt this was both the sin of the filmmakers and of Creasy. Now, I wonder if that was the point: to show that vengeance turns the world to ash, allows us no option but to become ash ourselves.

Of course, most of us won’t live such an extreme experience as Creasy. But we can still cling to and build our lives around a hope and desire for vengeance. Even the rhetoric surrounding our death penalty is often more about vengeance than justice. Over and over again, I find myself coming back to the Drowning Man Trail. I definitely don’t think murders and, especially not, rapists should be wandering around free. Still, I wonder what it would look like if we lived in a culture and a world that believed that saving a life, accepting that life is not always just, can set us free from sorrow.

3 thoughts on “Lazy Grief

  1. This reminded me of Numbers 35.

    The point that most people miss with the “eye for an eye” is that the punishment should not exceed the wrong. You are not supposed to sentence someone to death for a minor infraction as is often the practice in excessively, oppressive governments.

    The “life” for a “life” thing has nuances with it. That is why motive, opportunity, and means plays into it. Someone who is a cold, calculating killer is different than someone who backed over a child they could not see. They are different than someone who in the heat of the moment unintentionally struck with a killing blow. However, the law of evidence should have 2 or more witnesses before any type of capital punishment is enacted. (Witnesses include evidence. )

  2. My takeaway from this, as ever, is to disagree with a statement you made. “I will always believe that pedophiles should be locked away their entire lives since it is an incurable sickness.” Take note that the nation with the lowest crime rate in the world is Norway. In that nation, there is no mandatory sentencing and no death penalty. In fact, there is no life sentencing. There is no national prison system. Those convicted of the most heinous crimes (i.e. murder, rape, pedophilia, child pornography, etc.) are sent to a federal therapy facility. There they remain until a board of psychologists determine they are mentally healthy individuals. Upon being released, their criminal record is expunged, and it is illegal to either discriminate them based on any criminal past, and to make public record any criminal past.

    I post this to note that, in the world of psychological academia, we do not believe that people are the mental illness they suffer from. In other words, we avoid saying someone “is autistic” or “is a pedophile.” Rather, we say “they suffer from pedophilia” and other such statements. This is because we believe, and thus far our research has shown, that: (A) we are as much a product of our environment as we are a product of our genes, and so we can never truly be a victim of our genome; and (B) there is no mental illness that we think we cannot overcome through therapy.

    Further, there is much to be said about a society that forgives those that commit crimes against those within that society. If someone commits a crime, and we allow them back into society, but with a label that says they are a “murderer” or a “pedophile” or a “danger to society,” etc. … how can we expect them to think they are a healthy member of society if they feel no one else sees them that way? How can we expect them to see themselves any different from the way our society has labeled them?

  3. Thanks for you comment, Tod. I do appreciate the feedback but I think you’re taking that comment too seriously. Though I do have some very strong (very personal) opinions about pedophilia, what I wrote was an exaggeration. I was just making it clear that I don’t think bad actions/choices shouldn’t have consequences (and was also slipping in my opinion that I think rape/molestation should be taken as seriously, if not more seriously than murder).

    Since the point of this post is that vengeance is a lazy form of grief, I don’t think I need to even bother arguing that I (for the most part) agree that we need to give people the chance to change, and to heal.

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