Evil Deeds

A forensic psychologist on anger, madness and destructive behavior.

Beauty, Evil and Death in Venice: A Midsummer's Meditation

How beauty can help counteract the blues.

 

Last Saturday evening, as the brilliant Southern California sun descended slowly into the Pacific Ocean, with throngs of vacationing tourists and lively locals out enjoying the natural beauty and cultural color of Venice Beach on a warm midsummer's night, evil reared its ugly head. Not natural evil, like earthquake, tsunami or tornado. But rather human evil. This evidently deliberate evil deed has saddened and shocked the Venice community, and touched me personally, starkly juxtaposing the ever-present existential realities of evil, death and beauty. It happened toward the conclusion of what, for me, was a beautiful month-long summer vacation.

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Our English word vacation is related to both the verb vacate, meaning to to leave empty or to give up possession of, and the adjective vacant, meaning empty or unoccupied. Most Americans consider vacations a time to travel to some exotic or beautiful destination. While some spend time soaking up the sun and relaxing on some tropical beach, others engage in endless sightseeing, tight tour schedules, shopping, and incessant museum hopping in Europe, Asia, Australia and elsewhere. All in a matter of ten days. This can often be both exciting and exhausting. But the true beauty and value of vacationing lies mainly in the voluntary relinquishing of the demands and daily responsibilities with which we sometimes compulsively fill up our lives. When taking a vacation, we temporarily abandon our regular routines, preoccupations and business (busy-ness), creating an empty space or container within which we can rediscover being rather than doing. What is being? Being is the subjective experiencing of one's own physical, psychological and spiritual existence in the world. Being is the basic ground of our humanity. It is our inner sense of aliveness, sensitivity, vitality, wholeness, passion, peace and serenity. Being is what we tend to lose touch with due to our dogged devotion to doing. When we temporarily stop our frenetic running around, doing, accomplishing, keeping busy, we create space for the simple beauty of being. This is what makes vacations therapeutic and healing. It is a return to our essential selves and to the existential experience of being alive and present in the moment. This is also the purpose of meditation or mindfulness, and why being more mindful of being itself on a daily basis can feel like a little vacation.

As we all know, it can take a couple of weeks just to start to slow down, relax, open up to and fully appreciate the beauty of being. Hence the distinct advantage of the extended month-long holiday (six weeks is the standard in some European countries like France, for example), albeit realistically economically prohibitive for most working Americans these tough economic times. Practically speaking, most of us cannot afford to take a month or more off. Yet, psychologically speaking, can we afford not to in terms of maintaining our mental health? One of the basic qualities of being we tend to lose sight of while so thoroughly consumed with working, achieving and succeeding, is beauty. "Beauty," writes psychologist Rollo May (1986), is "the experience that gives us a sense of joy and a sense of peace simultaneously. . . Beauty is serene and at the same time exhilarating; it increases one's sense of being alive. Beauty gives us not only a feeling of wonder; it imparts to us at the same moment a timelessness, a repose--which is why we speak of beauty as being eternal. Beauty is the mystery which enchants us." Beauty, like music, not only "soothes the savage breast," but nurtures and restores the soul.

In his autobiographical book My Quest for Beauty, Dr. May recounts how a chance encounter with the beauty of being personally helped him transcend depression, anxiety and despair during his early twenties. Depression ( see my prior posts) is a state of mind in which one sees the world through a glass darkly. The chronically depressed person perceives and dwells primarily on the negative aspects of being: life's ugliness, unfairness, meaninglessness, tragedy, absurdity, fragility, horror and the harsh reality of suffering, anxiety, evil and death. Indeed, even the habitual inattention to life's beauty due, as May describes, to being "too hard-working, too 'principled' to spend time merely looking at flowers," can cause, exacerbate or perpetuate depression; which, in turn, makes it that much more difficult to find and appreciate the beauty of being. Vacations can help us to become more open and receptive to the beauty all around us, wherever we are. Beauty we miss when engaged in grappling with the myriad problems and complexities of modern life. But, sometimes, even vacations can turn tragic. Consider, for example, the tragic case of Natalee Holloway, who disappeared (probably a victim of murder) while on vacation in Aruba (see my prior posts). To cite the great songwriter/singer/musician/poet Joni Mitchell from "Amelia" on her soulful Hejira album, "Where some have found their paradise, others just come to harm."

Toward the tail end of my own recent vacation, most of which was spent close to home here in Los Angeles, I was out riding my bicycle, heading toward Venice Beach. The weather was glorious, with some white, puffy clouds drifting lazily across the azure sky. While waiting at a corner for the light to change before crossing the street, a happy-looking young couple approached me, haltingly asking directions. "Can you tell us where to find the Big Blue Bus?" They looked like they were in love, and spoke with foreign accents. I asked where they were from, and was told they were visiting from Italy, Bologna to be exact. We very briefly exchanged some words there on the corner about the beauty of Italy and other pleasantries. All in less than a minute.Then the light changed, and I rode off, leaving them behind. I spent the day on the Venice Beach Boardwalk, riding along the palm tree-lined bike path that snakes through the sand providing a picture-perfect panoramic view of the Pacific filled with white sailboats. Eventually, I stopped at my favorite cafe for some leisurely brunch, and watched the never-ending parade of people along the boardwalk, framed by the sparkling sea and crystalline blue sky in the background. "Another day in paradise," as we locals sometimes say.

It was not until Sunday, two days later, that I heard about what had happened: At six o'clock Saturday evening, a man allegedly deliberately drove his speeding car (perhaps not insignificantly, a black Dodge Avenger), onto the crowded, pedestrians-only Venice Beach boardwalk, mowing down  sixteen strollers and merchants, killing one. It took place just adjacent to the cafe on the boardwalk (which is not wooden boards at all, but rather a wide concrete walkway or promenade lined with various stores and vendors) where I enjoyed brunch the day before. According to television news reports, the single fatality was a 32-year-old woman from Italy. Alice Gruppioni. She had just gotten married two weeks ago, and was on vacation, honeymooning here with her Italian husband, Christian, who was also injured, though not critically. Upon hearing this, I was stunned and had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Then it was further reported they were both from Bologna. The photograph of the smiling couple flashed on the television screen confirmed what I already instinctively knew: These were the two tourists I had chatted with the previous day. They had been viciously assaulted allegedly by a 38 -year-old homeless man with a troubled past and history of substance abuse.

Though no motive has yet been officially identified and we still know relatively little about this middle-aged drifter, as with most contemporary mass killers, he was more than likely furious with the world and out to avenge what he perceived to be a lifetime of unfair mistreatment and misfortune. He may himself have felt victimized and insignificant, seeking vengeance and a sense of power over his victims (see my prior post) or been driven, like so many perpetrators of school shootings, by what I call "a wicked rage for recognition." (See my prior posts.) "Violence," writes Rollo May (1972), "is the ultimate destructive substitute which surges in to fill the vacuum where there is no related-ness. . . . When inward life dries up, when feeling decreases and apathy increases, when one cannot affect or even genuinely touch another person, violence flares up as a daimonic necessity for contact, a mad drive forcing touch in the most direct way possible." May perceived, more than four decades ago, that "Our particular problem in America at this point in history, is the widespread loss of the sense of individual significance, a loss which is sensed inwardly as impotence. . . . So many people feel they do not and cannot have power, that even self-affirmation is denied them, that they have nothing left to assert, and hence that there is no solution short of a violent explosion" (Power and Innocence). Individuals who conceive of themselves as helpless, powerless victims of society sooner or later reach the hopeless point of feeling that since they have nothing to lose--no power, influence, money, prestige or status--violence is their sole alternative, their last remaining means of making some potent personal statement.

Sadly, this evil deed follows on the heels of a mass shooting at nearby Santa Monica College earlier this summer by yet another troubled young man, in which six bystanders died including the apparently mentally unstable perpetrator at the hands of police. Amidst the undeniable beauty of the golden beaches, undulating green sea, balmy breezes and swaying palm trees, there is always trouble in paradise. Evil is afoot, just as it was in the biblical Garden of Eden or in the Book of Job. And none of us are immune. For those uncomfortable with theological and philosphical terms such as "evil," "Satan" or the "devil," maybe it can all merely be chalked up to bad luck for these innocent victims. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Or perhaps even to fate: "It was their time to die." But what is "bad luck"? Why do some people have bad luck, while others have good luck? Why does someone have an enduring run of bad or good luck? Is it really just random, meaningless "luck of the draw"? Or might  there be mysterious outer and inner forces, such as fate or the Devil-- or even what we psychologists call "the unconscious"--at work that determine or influence what we call "luck"? If truth be told, these are all efforts to make sense of and explain such seemingly senseless incidents and the archetypal reality of evil in general.

When confronted starkly with these awful events, there is no denying the dark side of existence. Life can be tragic, cruel, brutal, horrific. Evil is an existential fact of life. Suffering is inescapable. Death is inevitable and an ever present possibility. As we know, some studies suggest that people suffering from depression perceive this tragic and shadowy aspect of life more realistically than most. But, I would add that they also tend to focus more exclusively on it, to the exclusion of life's positive aspects such as love, goodness and beauty. Which, as we said earlier, can perpetuate depression. This is one reason why so-called Positive Psychology encourages emphasizing the brighter side of life. Yet, evil, suffering and death are inextricably related to beauty. "Death is the mother of beauty," says Wallace Stevens. "The sublime," writes philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, is "the artistic conquest of the awful." There can be great beauty in tragedy, sadness, even in suffering. Evil can give birth to creativity. This paradoxical link can be heard and seen expressed in the greatest artistic creations throughout human history. Ugliness and beauty are but two polar sides of being, and both must be seen, accepted and appreciated as such. We may never become perfect Buddhas by no longer judgmentally distinguishing between the two, but we must learn to accept reality as it is. No small challenge. Paradoxically, it may be that the more of life's dark side, negativity, or what theologian Paul Tillich called "non-being" we can tolerate, take in and accept without too much denial, dissociation or minimization, the more sensitivity, receptivity and access we have to the beauty of being. But it is, for all of us, so easy to lose sight of life's beauty at times. To be consumed by darkness. Especially during  difficult, trying times. And when confronted with the hideous visage of evil, tragedy and trauma, be it natural or man-made.( See my prior post.) Beauty, it seems, is a quality of life and of being one must consciously and constantly strive to rediscover and recreate. It is the fundamental task of each of us to quest for, and in our own way, to create beauty--both for ourselves and our fellow creatures. For finding and creating beauty may be the best antidote to those beastly existential blues.

 

Stephen Diamond, Ph.D., is a clinical and forensic psychologist in LA and the author of Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence, Evil, and Creativity.

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