Similar to yesterday’s Quote of the Day, the above statement from Toni Morrison – Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Nobel Laureate and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient – hit home with me in a visceral way. If Chuck Palahniuk was asking, How come pain and tragedy leave such indelible scars when happiness seems to float by us without as much as a nick on our thick skins? then Ms. Morrison, in a talk delivered to Harvard Divinity School as part of the school’s 2012 Ingersoll Lecture on Immortality, asked, Is altruism an instinctive act of selflessness, or is it taught and learned?
She was pondering this question after one of the most horrific gun-related events in recent memory. (The fact that I have to qualify that as “recent memory” is telling in and of itself.) On October 2, 2006, a lone gunman, Charles Carl Roberts IV, walked into an Amish one-room schoolhouse, took hostages and shot eight out of ten girls (aged 6–13), killing five, before committing suicide in the schoolhouse. It would hereafter be referred to as the West Nickle Mines School shooting.
As with every other mass shooting in the United States, it seems, the initial news centered around gun laws and how nothing would change. But then something extraordinary happened, giving Toni Morrison – and the rest of the world – pause: the small Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania reached out to help heal the wounds not just of the fallen and injured; they reached out to the family of Mr. Roberts. Attempting to understand this mind-boggling behaviour, Ms. Morrison would say the following in her HDS talk:
“[The community’s] silence following that slaughter, along with their very deep and sincere concern for the killer’s family, seemed to me at the time characteristic of genuine goodness – and so I became fascinated even then with the term and its definition. I wondered why the narrative quickly ignored the killer and the victims and focused exclusively on the shock of forgiveness.”
This led her to examine a host of questions many of us have asked at one point or another in our lives: Are we inherently good as human beings? Or is selfishness a disguised form of narcissism?
That’s when Ms. Morrison turned to – you guessed it – books (and science) for the answers:
“Some of the most thought-provoking theories came from scholarship investigating the DNA – scientists seeking evidence of an embedded gene, automatically firing to enable the sacrifice of oneself for the benefit of others. It was a brother or sister to Darwin’s survival of the fittest.”
She went on to use the arts as a metaphor, and one that I think is particularly apt not only in this day and age, but especially in the wake of what recently transpired at a Texas church. As she herself put it so eloquently:
“I’ve never been interested or impressed by evil itself. But I have been confounded by how attractive it is to others, and stunned by the attention given to its every whisper, its every shout. Evil has a blockbuster audience, while goodness lurks backstage.”
Perhaps it is precisely at times like right now that we should be considering these God-sized questions and exploring other avenues besides pointless rhetoric that infuriates everyone. Or, as the towering figure of American Letters said so much more memorably:
“Allowing goodness its own speech does not annihilate evil. But it does allow me to signify my own understanding of goodness. The acquisition of self-knowledge – a satisfactory ending for me – is when the protagonist has learned something vital and morally insightful about the killer that she or he did not know at the beginning.”