Editor’s note: This post has been revised.
I never thought I would know a murderer personally. Most of us probably never consider that possibility. I never did.
Recently, I found out a man I hung out with occasionally had killed his wife with a gun, before turning the weapon on himself.
This man had been an acquaintance in the truest sense of the word, because I only saw him about once a year during an annual camping trip. I actually haven’t attended the excursion in years, so it had been a while since I’d encountered him.
Every time I had seen him in the past, it was in the somewhat-absurd context of a bunch of men spending a late-Fall weekend drinking, eating lots of meat cooked over an open flame, burning a large quantity of wood and random household objects in a massive bonfire (most of our seating never survived), and generally goofing off in a semi-wilderness setting relatively isolated from the outside world (a place not far from civilization but only accessible by boat).
It was on this yearly camping trip that I came to know a man nicknamed “Death.”
Death was part of a group of older men that included my best friend’s uncle, who had invited us younger guys to join the tradition. Death and the other older guys had gradually accepted us as an injection of new blood. Part of our initiation involved listening to the stories of the men who had established the event. The tales of Death’s exploits were among the most outrageous.
According to the legends, Death had earned his moniker through various reckless activities and personality quirks. He was known to randomly throw large firecrackers—like the infamous M-80—into the communal bonfire without warning. If he was feeling benevolent, Death might mutter “everybody back up” after tossing an explosive into the flames.
Death also had a penchant for carrying a number of knives of various sizes. Some of these knives would make an appearance at random times during the trip. You might feel someone staring at you, only to look up and see Death wearing a wild expression while holding a wicked-looking blade that gleamed in the firelight. Then, you’d share a chuckle with him, and the knife would vanish into his coat.
Other typical Death activities included wearing copious amounts of military-style camouflage gear and leather gloves with the fingers cut off, not to mention talking wistfully about war. He also occasionally set fire to a chair in which someone was sitting.
Not All Risk Is Created Equal
In the often machismo-laden social commerce of men, risky behaviors are viewed as “proof of manhood.” Through this distorted lens, Death’s behaviors on our camping trips weren’t considered indicative of deeper issues. If anything, flaunting the potential for injury is seen as a rite of passage under the shallow “laws” of machismo.
As a proponent of heroism, I believe in our amazing ability to act altruistically in the face of danger. But the risks we undertake when we help others are for a purpose beyond mere displays of empty bravado. Heroic risk is a choice one makes for the sake of others. In contrast, the risks posed by Death’s behavior were sprung on his fellow campers without warning or consideration of the potential consequences. Therefore, he took away our right to choose the risks.
Another risky behavior for men is the refusal to admit our mental and emotional struggles. We are often discouraged (primarily by other men) from self-examination of our feelings, let alone seek help for mental health issues. Though men indeed have biological “hardwiring” that skews us automatically toward detachment, we can indeed consciously cultivate deeper emotional intelligence to better deal with our feelings.
A positive trend toward modern male well-being must include accepting the complexities of our thoughts and emotions. We must give ourselves permission to feel, in order to better manage and process our emotions. Despite the constant claim by “machismo cultists” that “real men don’t feel,” embracing all your emotions is actually a sign of personal strength.
Based on what I knew about Death, I would be shocked if he didn’t struggle with the ridiculous taboo against mental healthcare that is unjustly imposed upon so many of us.
When I heard about the murder-suicide Death had committed, my brain fired up its speculation engine almost immediately. This is a natural reaction to horrible news. It always takes conscious work to quiet your inner chatter and avoid jumping to conclusions, but it’s worth the effort to achieve open-minded consideration of circumstances. Easy explanations are tempting in their simplicity, but they’re often woefully inadequate.
I instantly felt shock and disbelief. I thought of the horror his wife surely experienced, and my utter inability to imagine the situation from her perspective. My sadness for her is immense. What her husband did was abhorrent, and beyond inexcusable. He had no right to take her life.
There’s an instinct to repudiate someone who commits heinous acts. I felt like I wanted to scrub away any positive associations with the man we all called Death. Still, there’s a part of me that wonders what pressures, what pain, could have pushed this man I once knew to such an abominable act. Even if there was a definitive explanation—such as a note left behind that outlined his motivations—it would never excuse what he did.
There is also a part of me that feels sad for Death, and seeks to retain the positive associations I have with his memory. This desire on my part also fuels guilt; how could I possibly justify looking back fondly on the good times I shared with Death, now that he has done this terrible thing?
Mixed Emotions are Normal
Research suggests that conflicted feelings (or mixed emotions) are a normal part of the coping process. The best strategy is to accept what you’re feeling in connection with negative events, as confused (and confusing) as those emotions may be. Don’t pressure yourself, or try to force yourself to feel a certain way in order to align with the expectations of others. Don’t put a time limit on how you process complicated emotions. It may take a long time to work out your feelings, and there’s a chance you will have some paradoxical emotions tied to a specific memory for the rest of your life.
I’m still processing my emotions in connection with Death. His nickname is now a sick irony. I may never fully resolve the thoughts and feelings surrounding his memory. Inevitably, every human being must live with memories that simultaneously cause us pleasure and pain. We shouldn’t suppress them or seek to erase them.
As always, I defer to the lessons of heroism. To be heroic is to be brave, and we must face our confusion rather than hide from it. Just because life offers us few objective answers, it doesn’t mean we should let that uncertainty paralyze us or cause us to give up on living. It also doesn’t mean we should give up on other people. Death was just one man who chose to do something horrible. There are many others who are worthy of our respect and admiration. I choose to focus on the latter.
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