Sunday, July 18, 2010

Rationalization and Catharsis

I am not a violent man. Not really.

Sure, I've studied varied martial arts over the past two decades, dabbling in the pugilistic styles of Hapkido, Aikido, Karate, Kendo, and Krav Maga. Sure, I love wrestling with my sons and my nieces, encouraging both of them to jump on me in a way that nearly always leads my mother to comment, "And you wonder why you have back problems?" Sure, I love playing the occasional violent first person shooter video game, especially if I can save the human race from zombies, alien predators, or particularly vicious insurance salesmen.

But there is a difference between catharsis, survival, brutality, and indifference, and my wife and I have struggled for many years to differentiate these to our children, despite a society that consistently confuses the four. For example, for me to kill another person, I would either have to completely devalue that person's life (indifference), weigh the value of my life against the other person's life (survival), or kill the person despite understanding the value of that life (brutality). As a vegetarian, to eat meat, I would have to ignore the pain felt by the animal (indifference), have no other solution but to eat the animal (survival), or eat the animal despite valuing its life (brutality). These are heady, philosophical ideas, ones that require a balanced perspective and a hefty dose of rationalization. And, yes, despite my soapbox, I have my own level of rationalization. Do I eat eggs? Yes. Are the hens kept in cages? Yes. Do I therefore devalue the suffering of the chickens? Well, possibly.

My wife and I have had many long discussions about this balance, particularly as it relates to touchy issues such as bringing toy guns and gun-related video games in the house. We finally agreed on a balance. We allow sword toys (including and especially light sabers), because despite their violent nature, they do teach the owner a respect for the person directly opposite you with the opposing light saber. You can not devalue them; If you do, you get whacked in the head. But guns, even toy guns, teach children to devalue life. Kids become desensitized to the reality of bullets. Violence becomes removed from consequence. Even as I write this, Indianapolis is reeling from a shooting downtown that left 10 people injured. Can I assume that my children will understand the subtleties between shooting virtual objects for the sake of emotional release and shooting real objects that have become virtual only through their devaluation? It's a slippery slope, and in our modern age of gun violence in the classroom, I fear this is not a subtlety we can ignore.

But yesterday those subtleties flew out the window. Yesterday I took Buck, my oldest son, to play paintball.

Buck had been asking to play paintball for the last two years. Despite his normal aversion to pain and loud noises, nothing could dissuade him, not even my wife's exhortations about the physical effects of a small liquid-filled object hitting his body at 300 feet per second. "Those things cause welts," she said. "I saw it on Mythbusters." Buck could see that any chance at paintball did not reside with his mother.

I, on the other hand, was intrigued. Despite a complete lack of interest in guns or the military in general, I couldn't help but feel a strange yearning for violence in a controlled atmosphere. I found myself in great need of shooting other people with paint while trying to avoid being hit by paint in return. Or possibly even while being hit by paint in return. It was a bizarre mix of catharsis, masochism, and sadism. To Buck, I said, "Sure, sounds fun. Let me look into it."

So finally, today we spent a couple of hours playing wargames at White River Paintball in Anderson, Indiana. We had the time of our lives. We played games of single elimination and capture the flag against strangers who very quickly became friends. We sweated in the hot sun and then got drenched in a sudden downpour. We crawled behind dunes, hid behind metal barrels, dived behind rusting aircraft, and cowered behind boxes. And then we jumped up, aimed, fired, picked off our enemy, laughed, and were immediately blasted with paint by the other guy flanking us. It wasn't painful, but it was exhausting, exhilarating, and exciting.

Most importantly, I felt that Buck learned a valuable lesson about catharsis, indifference, survival, and brutality. Sure, paintball is cathartic, but you can’t be indifferent about the violence, not when the other guy is shooting back at you. You can’t be too brutal, not when there are regulations regarding surrendering, weapons safety, and the like. For the short time we played soldier (and I realize that was all we were doing), we understood that sometimes you have to balance your life against your enemy’s life. This is survival, and even with survival, even in the midst of war, there are rules to be followed.

Unless you have your father within your sights. And then it’s open season.

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