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I am Robert Bowers.
I do not have enough. I do not have enough money or love or acceptance. I do not have enough social capital or political power or cultural prominence. I am on the margins of a society that celebrates power and prestige.
I feel shame because I do not measure up.
But I hide my shame from myself—because shame loves to hide—and I blind myself to my pain, my secret softness, my broken heart, my vulnerable, small, wounded self. Instead, I turn my shame into blame, and the blame becomes hatred, and the hatred turns inward.
But hatred and shame are insatiable. Their great gaping maw takes in more, and more, and more—always MORE. And the only thing shame eats…is shame. And the only thing hatred eats…is hatred.
I have lived in a world of shame and fear and self-hatred for so long that I must seek the relief of punishment. I must give myself clarity and closure. I must bring to a crisis this terrible uncertainty that I feel, the uncertainty of the question “Am I bad? Do people hate me? Reject me?”
To find that the answer to these questions is YES is a bigger relief than to languish in the uncertainty of my shame. I feel more powerful being right—Yes, I AM bad—than I do in being vulnerable. Because to admit to feeling weak and powerless is to somehow not be “a man.”
Men are powerful, my culture tells me. Men are so powerful that they must be controlled. Men are toxic. Men are dangerous. Men are a threat to women, to children, to the weak and vulnerable.
So I will become this threat. I will become dangerous. I will become the thing I fear I am, and in becoming That Thing. I will at least be right about myself. I will find a kind of perverse certainty in knowing this. I will feel powerful.
Let me find my Other, and let me hate him as much as I hate myself.
I am full of life! I love people! I love attending synagogue and seeing my friends! I love eating at Eat ‘n’ Park and filling my plate with cookies at the holidays and visiting my parents in Florida. My life is full of love and joy and gratitude.
I am grateful, so grateful, for the life I have been given—even if it doesn’t seem to measure up to social standards of “success.”
I am enough—just as I am. I love myself, and I love others.
Hellish Death arrives at the Tree of Life, and it will seem—for a moment—that Hell wins.
But here is the good news: What we imagine as hell is just that—our imagination. Heaven lies all around us, even now. Heaven is the real. In fact, heaven is the only reality. This hell we have created? It isn’t real. When Death dies, Life still remains—nothing can separate us from the Life-Love of G-d.
And here is more good news: all it takes for Death to die is one moment. One moment of openness and light and vulnerability. It’s like Death is a germ, and sunshine kills germs.
Here is that One Moment:
Robert Bowers walks into the Tree of Life Synagogue and walks up to Cecil Rosenthal. Instead of projecting “power”—“All Jews must die!”—he breaks down into tears. He says “I’m hurting and lonely and I need a friend.”
Most tragedies could just as easily have become comedies, as Shakespeare well knew.
This is not what happened, of course.
Was Robert Bowers a coward? Yes. And most of us are cowards, if we’re honest with ourselves. Most of us hide our shame, even from ourselves. Most of us want to blame others for our “failures.” Most of us resist becoming vulnerable. Most of us want to cover up our wounds, not expose them to more painful wounding. Most of us believe in the illusion of power. Most of us want to be counted “successes.”
Let me be careful about what I say next:
I affirm that it is crucially important that justice is served. I affirm that legal consequences—to the full extent of the law—are important. God is the god of both justice and mercy.
But real healing will only begin when we locate those parts of ourselves that also exist in Robert Bowers. When we can befriend, not reject, those parts of ourselves. Only then will we be able to befriend the next Robert Bowers, while he can still be persuaded to let down his guard, to release his hatred.
When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and a true maxim, that a “drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.” So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one. On the contrary, assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action, or to mark him as one to be shunned and despised, and he will retreat within himself, close all the avenues to his head and his heart; and though your cause be naked truth itself, transformed to the heaviest lance, harder than steel, and sharper than steel can be made, and though you throw it with more than Herculean force and precision, you shall be no more be able to pierce him, than to penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw.
I don’t know how we would make the sweeping social and political changes that would transform the hearts of the Robert Bowers’s of this country.
But I’m about 90% sure that Cecil Rosenthal would have known how to reach Robert Bowers, if given the chance.
*My thanks to Benjamin Kleinerman, Associate Professor of Constitutional Democracy at James Madison College, Michigan State University, for alerting me to the connection to Lincoln’s “Temperance Address” (Springfield, Illinois—February 22, 1842).