Nice thread on “Better Call Saul” yesterday, so I thought I’d say a little more. “Saul”, “Breaking Bad” and before them “The Sopranos” have (IMO) likable, bad people at the core of the shows. We are tempted to empathize with their world views, to excuse their behaviors, justify their rationalizations. Believe other people or external events are responsible for their choices. I compared them to mini-Macbeths, where horrifically evil actions are made comprehensible by seeing the humanity of the guilty party.
Tragedies–men of force and intellect (well…I’d say Jimmy is clever, but not hugely smart) who think they can make their own rules in the world. Of the three, I’d say Walter White is the most evil–he sees totally innocent people killed or destroyed as a consequence of his actions, and continues his behaviors. Unless I’m forgetting something, that’s worse than anything Tony Soprano ever did. “Saul” is a step removed from direct evil physical actions, but constantly warps rules, and supports those who DO engage in direct, evil actions.
It’s a slippery slope indeed. What are the doorways to evil, the portals we often pass without realizing we’ve opened the gates to hell? Well, Musashi speaks of one, and the Sufis another.
Musashi’s first principle is: “Do not think dishonestly.” Well…I’ve certainly never met anyone I could declare honest 100% of the time. But the occasional lies we tell ourselves or others are not the same as excusing our lies by saying “everyone does it” and employ/rely upon them as a tactic and strategy. It is even worse if we realize we are not disconnected from those around us. That, in essence, when we lie to others we cannot help but lie to ourselves. That distorts our reality map, takes us off the road to wisdom and Awakening. On “Saul”, Jimmy cannot even understand what is wrong with his lying, cheating, and stealing. If he doesn’t get caught, what’s the problem..?
Every parent knows that a lying child is thinking this way, and we pray that something will finally “click in” and they will become internally directed, begin to seek honesty for their own sake. When they do, we breathe a sigh of relief.
The Sufi piece is the thought that the beginning of evil is treating human beings as means rather than ends. In other words, failing to extend your own humanity to others. Walter White cares about the people close to him, but is so bought into his own bullshit that everything, including human lives, are just pieces on a game board to be moved around for his entertainment and profit.
And make no mistake: they give him a way off that train–he is offered insurance. His EGO won’t let him take it. What is disturbing is that even after this telling moment, fans of the show continued to insist that he HAD to continue to be “Heisenburg”. Wow. Really? Are these people not describing their own moral landscapes? That they would excuse themselves in the same circumstances? Do the same things and use the same justifications?
What did Walter White tell himself after that boy was shot in the desert? After the plane blew up? He is directly or indirectly responsible for HUNDREDS of deaths, and until the last fifteen minutes of the last episode, continued to claim he had no responsibility. THAT is human evil.
“Judge Not, Lest Ye Be Judged” is often quoted. But I think that comment is connected to “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Very clearly, Christ evaluated the worth and rightness of human actions, so there can’t be a blanket statement against having values or measuring behaviors. But what is being said is that if you judge others, you will be judged. Well, actually, according to Christian doctrine you’re gonna be judged whether you judge others or not, so I have to think some thing is being lost in translation.
The truth is that we NEED the judgement of others, especially those who have walked the lifepaths we desire, who have the skills we covet, or have accomplished what we seek. Without that judgement, we are denied the very feedback we need to improve.
That doesn’t mean to be cruel, mean, insulting, or anything else. It means we need the truth. And frankly, yes, that little kid inside us wants that truth to be offered in the softest, sweetest way we can get it. But in the adult world, if you are about to be hit by a train, do you REALLY want someone to spend five minutes telling you what a good, sweet, wonderful person you are, or would you rather hear someone say: “hey, idiot, get off the tracks!” Yes, there is room between the two. But if you are going to tell me that unless someone says it “nicely” you’re going to stay right there on the tracks, is that your “adult” or your “child” speaking?
Either we are responsible for our actions, or we are not. If other people are responsible for our emotional states, we have NO AGENCY. There is simply no behavior we cannot justify by saying someone else treated us in this or that manner. None.
Yes, I’m talking personal responsibility, and I fully grasp the danger some will see in doing so. What happens when we apply this principle to entire groups, some of whom (ahem) statistically have more issues with the legal system or other dysfunctional or destructive behaviors?
Simple, really. While some of the underlying issues have been debated for thousands of years and will continue to be so for thousands more, I have no problem maintaining an internally consistent position, and it is this:
The average person cops out, stays asleep, lies to themselves an average amount of the time. And given the same stimuli will mis-behave or under-perform an average amount. While individuals MUST be responsible for their behaviors or miss their lives, most are, by definition, only average about this. Such that if you see a group of people operating at a level of pain, it is reasonable to assume that they are dealing with different environmental pressures. m So yes, I can see the problems in group X. But the Ys wagging their finger would ON AVERAGE be the same, given the same history and situation.
That’s my position. I’m perfectly aware that at least 20% of people have a different theory about such things, and that’s all right.
If you are an X, and you want a better life, you have to be other than average, or you are screwed. And much of that will be dependent on telling the truth and extending empathy.
Love and fear. Telling the truth demands having sufficient control of your fear to actually deal with the worst that could happen, not need the balm of illusion.
And empathizing means loving yourself to reach the core of your being, to fill your own heart so that you need no emotional reinforcement from others. Free of that neediness, you tap into something larger than human ego, and begin to expand outward, naturally beginnning to share that love with others. The consequence, to see your own soul in the eyes of others, is the door to heaven, just as objectification and dishonesty are the doorway to hell.
If Jimmy and Walter and Tony had loved themselves, told the truth, and extended that love to others…precisely what evil would they have ever done? I may be forgetting something, but I don’t see it.
Tragedies were considered a high social art, in classic dramas the downfall of a powerful human being because of their personal failings. Watching them destroyed by their own hubris or lack of wisdom or evil was an uplifting experience, and the coffee-house discussions that followed allowed the audience to discuss and reinforce the social values at the core of the downfall.
Watching “Breaking Bad” or “Better Call Saul” or “The Sopranos” (or “The Godfather”, probably the very best of the popular American explorations of this theme) is a fascinating Rorschach test. What people say about the events tells you what they think of humanity, the ethical structure of the universe, what is acceptable, who is responsible for our actions and emotions. Sometimes, what they wish they were courageous enough to do themselves.
It is educational. And fun. And at times…just a little scary.