In A World Of Extremes – Are People All Good Or All Bad?

In an upper-level psychology class I took AFTER getting both my undergrad and graduate degree in business, I learned when a person sees other people as all good or all bad, it’s a type of psychological disorder. Seeing any situation as black or white, and ignoring the gray, isn’t healthy. For the record, and to go off on a tangent before even starting this post, I think everyone should take far more psychology classes. Endlessly interesting and educational, assuming you want to learn and grow from it. As a person who tried to get into management, then decided I wasn’t ready, my biggest weakness was understanding others’ motivations (or lack thereof). So my intention wasn’t to understand myself so much as to understand others.

Anyway, in that class, there was a discussion of people seeing others as all good or all bad, and failing to see the gray area. This is an issue because it’s rarely ever true. There aren’t generally people who always do the right thing, or never slip up morally or emotionally or physically or whatever. For example, I think my parents are genuinely good people. They set a standard for doing the right thing because it’s the right thing. That said, they’ve both said mean things to me. My mom especially. Things that seem mean spirited and don’t have any purpose. Things that probably hurt a lot because it’s so rare. And I think my brain has a hard time wrapping around that they aren’t all good. But I remind myself of that, and feel like that helps me be less critical or harsh.

The same thing can be said for people who do bad things. Really bad things. For example, serial killers. BTK specifically. He was obviously a bad person. He killed people across decades, and was able to cover it up. He had a psyche he hid from his family and friends. So, was he a bad person? Yes. Was he all bad? I’m not sure. I’m not sure how you know. It sounds like he was a good father and husband, even being a stickler for details. I know lots of fathers and husbands who are very anal. And I think they’re good people. So was he motivated to be that person on the exterior to cover up the evil? Or was there actually good and evil in him? Was at one point he an all good person, and he devolved into these evil characteristics? Were there layers? How do you know? When someone like this is arrested, they’re vilified, and it seems we never get a real understanding of the person. He volunteered at his church. Was that all a cover-up? Or was he trying to make up for the bad things he had done by going above the standards for a general parishioner? I don’t know that we’ll ever know. But it’s popular to turn these people in to all bad. To take away any redeeming qualities. And maybe they have none. I’m not sure. I’m just trying to explore that from the perspective this teacher gave.

And specifically when talking about Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. We want to believe they’re all evil. We don’t want to see any human or sensitive qualities. We don’t want to make excuses for them because we fear those excuses will be used for future bombers and terrorists. But should we understand? Or try to understand? Why are we so scared? Are we scared of passing off blame? Because despite understanding, I feel these two are 100% accountable for their actions. They’re adults. And while Dzhokhar probably doesn’t have a fully developed brain, he didn’t act in a moment of impulse. He acted in a methodical, thought-out, slowly progressing manner. He’s responsible for his actions, and no precursor makes it OK to kill strangers.

But I do want to explore and understand. I do want to have some perspective of how this all started. I do want to consider not only what led up to, but what warning signs there were, if any. What could be done, if anything. Maybe nothing. There will never be a way to rid the world totally of evil. I realize and respect that. But you take someone like the Tsarnaev brothers and wonder if it could have gone another way.

This is why I was interested in the Rolling Stone article.

I don’t think Dzhokhar is glamorized. I don’t think he’s raised to rock star status, whatever that means. Hell, I don’t even know why there is such a thing as “rock star status.” Maybe Americans should consider why it’s OK to idolize rock stars or movie stars or sports stars at all. No, seriously. These are just regular people. Also shades of gray as far as good and bad goes. Many are indulge in lives of drugs and alcohol, or cheating, or deception or scandal. They’re no better than the guy in the cubicle next to you, aside from an artistic or performance talent. Maybe the guy next to you has a different talent. One that popular culture doesn’t garner the same media attention, or the same over-inflated paycheck. But I bet he’s a good dude. Smart, motivated, interesting. Or maybe he’s as boring as he seems. I don’t know who you sit next to. But I sit among some smart people with a variety of talents. Some smarter than I could be, even if I stopped writing drivel and started trying to be smarter. And I don’t idolize them. But I also don’t idolize fame. Or even money. I’d like to have money so I can get out of the corporate world hamster wheel, but that’s all. And what would I do then? Who knows. But working is a part of life, so I do it. What did I take away from the Rolling Stone article?

  1. First and foremost, it saddens me that Tamerlan came to his mother, the person who should always protect him, with fears of a second person inside him. Instead of seeking medical help, she pushed him toward religion. And when that became obsessive, she didn’t step in. She encouraged it. At fault here, if blame falls anyone aside from the brothers, is the mother. It’s harsh, but as a parent you take on certain responsibilities. She failed. And I hate to think how this would have turned out with proper concern and care.
  2. Second, the article lays out a life where the brother was worshiped. A life where the family was disconnected in seeking happiness or fulfillment for any of the children. A life where daughters were sold off in arranged marriages when they started doing things that weren’t acceptable. As a woman, I am sickened that this happened (luckily both daughters got out of those marriages, unfortunately, it resulted in severing ties with the family). So the structure of the family wasn’t traditional. A lot of pressure was put on Tamerlan, as well as a lot of probably unsought pressure through hero-worship. Do people like to be looked up to? Sure, but I know I’d prefer to be me. Not me as a role model. Again, this fault falls on the parents.
  3. Third, Dzhokhar was left seemingly alone to figure out some of the most complicated parts of life. When he should have been developing friendships and had the guidance of his family, he was at a college he didn’t love and wasn’t challenged by. When you’re the smartest guy in the room, it’s tough. I’m not saying he was smarter than everyone, but he definitely wasn’t challenged. And he was looking for somewhere to fit in in the world. Cue his brother, who is obviously suffering from a mental disorder.

The article didn’t state specifically when Tamerlan’s worry about another person inside him started. So it’s hard to tie how that might relate to Dzhokhar. Many mental diseases are genetic, and often time these things show up in young men in their late teens and early twenties. Maybe Dzhokhar had some of the same issues, and he went to his brother, who helped him the same way he was helped.

Maybe not.

Maybe Dzhokhar simply was involved in the same her0-worship discussed above, and put his brother’s opinions above logic.

Maybe not.

Maybe Dzhokhar was just a bored, entitled kid who was looking for something selfish to do.

Maybe not.

I don’t get religious extremism. And I’m talking any religion. I don’t understand throwing logic and empathy out the window with the purpose of seeing only one way. And often that way is jaded and foggy and, well, wrong. But even through the murk, that’s all these people see. And it comes from worship. Many people believe religious worship is the only kind of worship that’s OK. And in America, where worship of all kinds of shades of gray people are worshiped, I suppose it should be OK. But much like how we need to see that sports stars aren’t infallible, we need to see religion isn’t always perfectly right. And extreme religion is a way of helping people belong, giving them a purpose and allowing them not to think. In a time when Dzhokhar was claiming to want to think, he was allowing someone else to think for him. In a time he felt alone, he was making companionship out of manipulators. This isn’t unlike any other religion or group of extremists. But it’s still sad.

Was there good inside Dzhokhar or Tamerlan? I bet there was. Was there any left in their darkest moments, it’s hard to see it. But after all of the darkness is washed away, is there any good left? I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to understand. For someone who was good at one point, is it all lost and gone forever? Is it all drown out by anger and hate? Or does that good still dwell inside? And does it ever swell up again? I have to hope so. Because Dzhokhar is young. And even though his life will probably be spent in prison, I hope he finds peace. And I hope the prison system has some way to help him deal with any mental disease he has, assuming he has one.


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