Individual evil and the goodness of the masses

Here’s another excerpt from Edward Kennedy’s memoir, True Compass. It constitutes a kind of case study of the grieving process — i.e., Bobby’s grief after the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy.

The excerpt also offers an insight into human beings at their best:

I think often of Bobby’s grief over the loss of Jack. It veered close to being a tragedy within the tragedy. […]

He delayed returning to his duties as attorney general; he found it difficult to concentrate on anything or do substantive work. Hope seemed to have died within him, and there followed months of unrelenting melancholia. He went through the motions of everyday life, but he carried the burden of his grief with him always. […]

In mid-January 1964, while Bobby was still attorney general and before he made up his mind to resign and run for the Senate from New York, President Johnson asked him to visit the Far East to negotiate a cease-fire between Indonesia and Malaysia. He was to meet in Japan with Sukarno, the enlightened but volatile Indonesian president […].

Bobby’s official mission was to act as peacemaker; but Johnson also hoped that the assignment would lift his spirits.

Johnson, so often perceived by Bobby as an adversary, had on this occasion performed a valuable act of compassion. In Japan, Bobby and Ethel witnessed a tumultuous outpouring of friendship from the people, who wanted to show their respect and love for John Kennedy through Bobby’s presence.

I believe that the reception restored his faith that life was worth living after all.

(pp. 210-11)

I have grieved the loss of both a brother and a sister. I can relate to Bobby’s inability to concentrate, his loss of motivation, and that melancholia which spirals downward, at intervals, into darkest despair.

I learned to ride the tiger:  to let it carry me where it would; to be patient with myself when I would break down in tears for very little provocation; to wait out the process until it had exhausted itself, like Muhammad Ali rope-a-doping George Foreman.

If there is any antidote for grief, it is the mere passage of time. That plus the remarkable resilience of the human spirit.

At Gethsemane, the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. In the grieving process, the flesh proves surprisingly strong:  bodily functions persist even while the spirit is utterly impotent. One day, you discover the unsuspected truth of that facile saying, “Life goes on.” Then your spirit may revive:  you may return, by stages, to the ordinary business of living — partly in spite of yourself.

One morning I woke up and I knew
     You were really gone
A new day, a new way, and new eyes
     To see the dawn.
Go your way, I’ll go mine and
     Carry on.

The sky is clearing and the night
     Has cried enough
The sun, he come, the world
     to soften up
Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but
     To carry on.

(Stephen Stills, “Carry On”)

I don’t know about the “rejoice, rejoice” part, but the rest of that line is true — “We have no choice but to carry on.”

There’s another lesson to be found in the story of Bobby Kennedy’s recovery from grief. It has to do with human nature:  that unseemly amalgam of terrible evil and inspiring goodness.

An individual — one lone gunman — was responsible for John F. Kennedy’s murder. For those of us who are inclined to pessimism, the assassination of JFK would seem to confirm our worst suspicions. Human beings are a sorry lot; fit only to be trampled underfoot or cast onto a raging fire.

But wait a moment! Consider:  what was it that revived Bobby Kennedy’s spirits, that convinced him, “life [is] worth living after all”? It was the kindness of strangers.

Initially, it was the compassion of a political rival — Lyndon B. Johnson. Even more important was the role of the crowds who turned out to meet Bobby in Japan:  to pour out their love and respect for his murdered brother, and befriend Bobby in the very depths of his despair.

Individual evil, and the goodness of the masses. That’s what emerges from Teddy Kennedy’s account of Jack’s assassination, and Bobby’s redemption.

I know:  people sometimes commit evil en masse, acting in concert with one another. Typically, such acts are carried out at the behest of a charismatic leader — an evil individual.

There is no question in my mind that evil is real, and evil individuals exist in considerable numbers. Indeed, evil is present in the heart of each and every one of us.

But whenever despair begins to overtake me, I remind myself of the goodness of the masses. One of my favourite songwriters captures the paradox very neatly:

[…] so much evil seems to land on man
when everyone I meet just wants to live and love
and get along as best they can.

(Bruce Cockburn, “Radium Rain”)

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