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Ming Zhen Shakya

Petty Atrocities

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

It is one of the less noble characteristics of human nature. We tend to trivialize the small and idealize the large. Mosquitoes, lice, and intestinal worms cause more grief to mankind in a single day than bears, lions, or tigers ever did in their entire evolutionary history. Yet we glamorize large predators, naming our sport teams after such creatures as inspire us with their fearful appearance. The Chicago Lice? The Arizona Tapeworms? The Philadelphia Mosquitoes? No. If it wriggles it had better be a Diamondback. If it flies, an Eagle.

In crime and punishment, too, we make the same peculiar distinctions. A man who in a drunken brawl or jealous rage kills another is a vicious murderer and must be shackled, manacled and shown all possible contempt; but the fellow who swindles an elderly couple out of their life's savings; the con man; the embezzler; the conniving, 'well-prepared' bankrupt; all these men are tidy, white-collar, non-violent mischief makers. They are folks, who, except for having made some slight error in judgment, are rather like ourselves. Quite often the punishment we mete out to them is mitigated by the empathetic notion that, considering the shame they have brought upon themselves and their families, they have "suffered quite enough." It is as if their victims and the families of their victims, because no blood was shed, suffered not at all. If a victim succumbs to the effects of despair, well that's his problem. A murderer is the proximate cause of death; but a forger is safely removed from responsibility, a kind of 'holder-in-due-course.'

Worse, we see their victims as having enabled the crime or even as having participated in their own victimization. Yes, when it comes to larceny and fraud, we always tend to blame the victim. We laugh at the naiveté of Prize Patrol victims - buying all those magazines!; or neophyte investors - lightweights wanting to run with the bulls!; or senile philanthropists - too befuddled even to be allowed access to a checkbook! And if a person doesn't read the fine print or hire an attorney to get an opinion on a relatively small matter and instead relies on the assurances of someone he has come to trust, well, he's to blame. A fool and his gold are soon parted. Caveat Emptor.

And so we decide that a victim's own greed and/or stupidity surely contributed to his financial calamity. Not unless we were intended to be his heirs and assigns or otherwise to benefit from those lost funds, do we consider the crime significant. In this tragic event the victim has not only lost his money and his self-esteem, he has lost the respect and love of his would-be legatees.

Liars, cheaters, thieves - these are the mosquitoes and lice of crime; and we treat them not as the menace they are, but as pests we can easily control. And how will we effect this control? We will recognize the threat on sight and take preventive measures. Why, we can look a person in the eye and tell if he's honest and true. With our keen intelligence and experience, we'll screen out those who seek to trick us.

Somehow we have gotten in the habit of viewing violence through prejudicial lenses that polarize serious physical and inconsequential emotional damage. But Buddhism's Five Precepts do not divide sin into venial and mortal. Stealing is given as much shrift as murder. A liar stands no taller than a drunk or an adulterer. In Buddhism, we believe that there are times when so-called petty crimes wound a person more deeply than an icepick's thrust.

We are not speaking now about the violent attacks of strangers or the crimes of passion. These crimes are terrible and require no elaboration. What is of interest here are those other crimes, the ones that are predicated upon familiarity and dependent upon trust... those acts which may not even be considered crimes at all but which are, nevertheless, violations of our sacred Precepts. We are all vulnerable to the pestilence; and what is required is the recognition of the process and the duty to absent ourselves from inclusion as a vector.

Recently, I kept a 9AM appointment at a doctor's office only to be told that he had just been called to the hospital for an emergency and would probably not be back for several hours. Did I want to wait, reschedule, or return later in the day? It was cold and raining, and I had parked in one of the few legal, non-metered spaces in a ten-block radius. Since they had snack machines in the building, I was prepared to wait until midnight. I settled in.

While the nurse talked idly with the receptionist, the phone rang. The receptionist signaled the nurse that the call was for her; and the latter gestured that she should find out who was calling. Sweetly, the receptionist asked, "May I tell her who's calling?" When the information was relayed the nurse feigned nausea, shook her head, and drew a fingernail across her throat. "I'm so sorry, " said the receptionist with lyrical pathos, "you just missed her. I think she went downstairs to pick up the mail. May I have her call you back?" After a pause she said, "Well, in that case, ten minutes ought to do it." As she hung up she squealed, "He was calling from a pay phone!" The information was evidently hilarious. (Not to own a cellphone and to make a social overture? Really!)

As they giggled, the nurse explained that the caller was a mechanic she had met the previous Friday evening at a country-western bar; a mutual friend having introduced him. It was then that she learned he was only a mechanic.. as if, Ugh! she needed more indication than the tell-tale black piping on his cuticles. Still, nobody better was around, he did know how to line-dance, and she needed new shock absorbers on her car. She stayed with him at the bar for a few hours, and he promised to put the shock absorbers in at cost. So she saw him the next day at his garage, and he did the work for a fraction of what her car dealer would have charged. "And now I guess he thinks he owns me." I wondered how he got her phone number at work.

He called back in ten minutes and the receptionist sighed that once again he had just missed her. She was with the doctor and a patient in the examining room and couldn't be disturbed. "Why don't you try again in fifteen or twenty minutes." She hung up and they laughed.

They talked about other things... clothes mostly... a few office calls came in, and then, sure enough, the mechanic called again. The receptionist affected genuine regret. "Ah, no... she's not out yet." They rolled their eyes and stifled laughter. He wanted the nurse to know that he was free that evening to take her to a movie that she had said she wanted to see. Could the receptionist give her that message and ask her if the date was on. He'd call back to get the information.

"Oh, God," said the nurse, looking heavenward. "As if...!"

An hour later, he called again and the receptionist said that she had conveyed his message and that nurse most definitely wanted to speak to him. Could he leave his home number?

This call generated so much good humor that the nurse called the mutual friend who had introduced them. By way of broadcasting her self-importance she wanted him to know that the mechanic was hounding her. "He's already called me six times this morning. I haven't taken any of his calls, but the pest keeps calling back!" There was a pause and then in a more concerned tone, she said, "It ceased to be funny about five phone calls ago. Some guys just cannot take a hint!"

What hint? He was calling back as per the suggestions given him. And I had counted only four calls.

The doctor came into the office. The nurse ushered me into an examining room and tried to exchange pleasantries with me. I didn't feel like talking. I couldn't get past the mechanic's predicament. Somewhere in my mind I could hear the gossip in his circle of friends in the country-western bar, the embarrassed friend admonishing him to "Lighten up!" or "Let it go! She's not interested!" The mechanic would be chagrined, wounded.

Nobody held a gun to the mechanic's head and forced him to buy her drinks, or dance with her, or repair her car. This he did on his own for whatever motive; and if she led him on, well, that is part of the game. But this breach of honesty, these lies and exaggerations, this deliberate cruelty and robbing him of his dignity, this was not part of the game. And certainly, baiting him to call back so that she could cast herself as the object of a 'fatal attraction,' this, too, was not part of the game. She and the receptionist had stolen his humanity, reducing him to a "pest".. an insignificant creature that casually could be destroyed. He wasn't a tiger or a bear or a lion. He was a bug... a pest.

Ajahn Chah, the Thai Buddhist master, lamented that you could convey to someone the majesty of the Dharma and you'd be lucky if he retained a line of it; but if you insulted him in the course of some petty correction, he would never forget a syllable of it, or forgive it, either.

Such injuries and insults are like pebbles in a shoe we can't unlace. We're trudging through emotional snow and every step renews the hurt. I suppose that we are fortunate that a merciful providence often consigns great injuries to oblivion. I once talked to a life-long friend of mine about vacations at the beach. I frowned. "I've never been one for water sports or swimming," I said. She looked startled. "No wonder," she said, "considering how you almost drowned!" "Drowned?" I knew nothing about almost drowning. "Don't you remember," she said, "how you got caught in an undertow and had to be rescued? The lifeguard actually launched a boat to go out and get you. You puked up a gallon of sea water." It wasn't something she was likely to make up. (My mother would later verify her account. But to this day I have zero recollection of the event.) "How old was I?" I asked innocently. "Oh... about eleven." What could I say? I recalled being at the seashore frequently during those days... but that unpleasant incident had been withdrawn from my memory banks.

Yet I recall with such clarity an event that would seem trivial by comparison. A few years ago I had a neighbor, a bachelor, who finally married. His new wife was young and pretty and had two sons, aged six and eight. I was out front working on the lawn when he introduced us. We talked about my teaching Buddhism, and I recall saying that teaching religion was different from other subjects... for example, people often got so emotional talking about their problems that I routinely took my phone off the hook when I taught because the interruptions could be so awkward.

I didn't know what my neighbor did for a living, but I knew that he went to work at dawn and returned home around 3:30 in the afternoon. A few weeks passed during which I exchanged a few 'wave' greetings with the girl and then, early one morning, after taking my trash cans to the curb, I sat on a lawn chair to admire Venus that was gloriously alone in the sky. The girl across the street came out to add some trash to her collection; and when she saw me looking up at the sky, she followed my gaze. "What is that? A star?" she called, crossing the street. "No," I said,. "it's the planet Venus." With an endearing ingenuousness she said, "You know, I've seen that a lot. I'd be partying all night and come out in the morning and see it up there. Some guy told me it was a UFO. But I never believed him."

We talked for awhile. I learned that she had had an alcohol problem and was taking a medication that made her ill if she took anything alcoholic. She couldn't even take cough syrup, she said. She liked her new sobriety. She had awakened to the world. She invited me to come to her house for tea after she walked the kids to school, but I declined saying I had to get online and answer my mail. Several hours later she came to my house. She was fascinated by the Internet. She wanted to study and learn how to use a computer. She asked me about my HP and my phone lines... and then she told me that she planned to start studying at one of those technical schools that advertised on television. The tuition was five thousand dollars, and her husband had agreed to sign the note. Since she had a high school diploma, I suggested that she consider community college. She didn't have a car and there was a campus within walking distance. She could try a few classes to see if she liked it. Five thousand dollars was a high price to pay for a possibility.

She returned to my house the next day. She had talked to her mother about taking college courses and her mother suggested that she brush up on her math and English. Would I mind tutoring her a bit? I didn't know how much help I could be, but I was glad to see her rebuild her life and so I said I'd try.

I gave her a couple of old books - high school math and English - and an old pocket calculator; and we set up a schedule. She'd come to my house at 1PM three days a week.

She came twice. The first time she had done the assignments. The second time she hadn't. I waited for her the third time; but she didn't come until close to three o'clock. Although she was carrying her books, she told me that she had taken a job at a beauty parlor. She was keeping her job a secret from her husband, she said, hinting that she was having marital problems. She wanted to earn a little "independence" money. She asked if she could keep the books and calculator for study in her free time, and I said sure.

Her sons were just returning from school. We stood outside and continued to talk until her husband drove up at 3:30. Seeing him, she waved goodbye to me and left with the boys.

In the weeks that followed, she often showed up at my house around 3 o'clock to wait for her sons and husband. She was lucky, she said, to have a boss who picked her up in the morning and dropped her off in the afternoon. He was a very nice guy.

Her husband, meanwhile, was not nearly so pleasant towards me as he previously had been. When he drove up and parked and she crossed the street to greet him, he didn't so much as nod in my direction. I attributed his mood to those marital problems to which she had alluded.

Then, one Saturday afternoon, when her sons were staying with their father, she called me on the phone and said that she had been doing some math problems - wanting to surprise me and her mother, but had 'hit a snag.' Could I come over and help her...right away... she had only a few minutes more to work on the problems since she had a lot of housework to do.

I went across the street and found a cup of tea already poured for me. The math book and calculator were beside it on the table. Before the tea had cooled enough to drink it, her husband came in. He had been away overnight and had called her on his way home. She had told him that I was already there and so she quickly summoned me to give credence to the lie. When he saw the mess the house was in - toys and dirty clothes everywhere, the sink piled high with dishes - he was truly angry.

He glared at me. "How long are you going to push this math thing?" he asked me accusingly. I looked at him dumbfounded. He continued, "You call or hang out here trying to play mother or whatever the hell you have in mind. She's got work to do. She's doesn't want to study astronomy! What don't you understand about 'No'!"

I stood up with that wide-eyed, open-mouthed "bass-on-a-hook" expression and watched in disbelief as she leaned up against him, a faint smile curling her lips. It was a superior, "I won" kind of smirk. As I turned and left he shouted, "And hang up your goddamned phone."

I have to laugh when I see these small-claims courtroom shows on television. The judge always asks the defendant why he didn't respond immediately in a more reasonable way. Sometimes a person is so confused he just doesn't know how to respond. Sometimes a hundred possibilities flash into his mind. He doesn't react in anger because he doesn't know if he should be angry. He doesn't answer 'truthfully' because he doesn't understand the question. He's shocked. Bewildered. Judges expect people to respond automatically, unemotionally. On the other hand, they also expect a person to think before he acts; but thinking takes time. It isn't as if the person has had this same experience every day of his life.

I realized, just as that mechanic would have realized, that we had been the objects of concealed hostility, not open friendliness. And by the time we discovered our error in judgment, there would be no opportunity for correction. The event itself would have severed communication. We were socially enjoined from approaching even to ask for an explanation or publicly to expose the deceit. How could we know who else - which friends and neighbors? - would have been apprised of a problem that we did not even know existed? We might even have praised the person who was betraying us. To be victimized in such a way is to be muted and isolated. Neither he nor I had suffered much in the way of financial loss or even time. But we were no different from the victims of embezzlement or investment scams. We had been deceived and used. So the difference we speak of here is not in kind, but merely in degree.

I don't know how the mechanic responded to the accusations against him, but I, being a Buddhist, was obliged to comprehend unemotionally what had happened, to understand the karmic links that connected this young woman to her actions.

A month or so later, a truck backed up to their garage and she moved out with all her furniture. Her husband filed for divorce, put the house up for sale, and left.

Gossip reached me (with a bit of prodding) and I heard that she had married my neighbor not for love but in the interests of retaining custody of her children. He could not psychologically accommodate the needs of children or even tolerate their boisterous presence in his once peaceful home; and she, seeing his increasing harshness, had decided to leave. But she needed money and the quickest way she knew to get it was to work in the mid-day, "businessman's" flesh trade. It was a pimp who regularly picked her up and delivered her.

What astonished me most was that as early as the time she had asked me about Venus... as early as the time she had asked me about my computer phone line and professed an interest in education... as early as she had concocted the story about working in a beauty parlor, she had been following an agenda. And I saw that the scheme had grown from a seed I had planted when I mentioned that I took my phone off the receiver when I taught. She no doubt had told her husband that my computer phone line was my house number. And if, trying to locate her, he ever called it, it would have been busy. And if he attempted to verify the number, well, it was mine, all right.

Usually, after the fact, we can determine the reasons why someone has misused us. This does not excuse their behavior, but it does assuage our anger and sharpen our insights.

But can a person defend against such scheming? Not really. Defense assumes aggression, and there is no indication of aggression. It is all rather like a terrorist's attack. If the terrorist is apparently benign and sufficiently determined - and willing to risk all possible consequences, there's no reasonable way to defend against his intentions.

We can't legislate against social cruelties, but we can apply Buddhist Precepts and the constraints of the Eightfold Path to our own attitudes and actions. It is no crime to be artless, to take people as we find them, to hold them innocent until their guilt has been established, and to try to help those who need our help. These are virtues, not vices. The alternatives are sometimes to be wretchedly exclusive, miserly, cautious to the point of paranoia, and utterly indifferent to the suffering of others.

To laugh at someone who has been made to look foolish or to charge him with having assisted in the manufacture of his own humiliation is to become a conspirator in the cruel act. There is nothing funny about any crime or misdemeanor; and when we find someone's pain or loss amusing, we do so from a mistaken sense of superiority, our own egotistical smugness. In fact, we are all vulnerable.

Unlikely predators capture our fancy. But we don't have to worry about anyone being mauled by a grizzly bear on a Chicago street or eaten by a Lion in a Detroit suburb. We do have to be concerned about limiting our consternation to only great and grievous acts of homicide and the unprovoked attacks of strangers.

Small insignificant things - lies, exaggerations and self-serving distortions of the truth, can also be instruments of terrible pain.

Somewhere in the tropical heat a man shivers to death with malaria. A mosquito has been the tiny agent of his destruction. 


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Last modified: July 11, 2004
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