The Lost Art of Compassion

My heart hangs low in my chest today. Eight people were killed by firing squad in Indonesia this morning as an attempted deterrent to drug smugglers everywhere. Eight people faced their killers, all of whom denied the offer of a hood. It is said they died with dignity, as dignified as being shot whilst tied to a plank can surely be.

I had a scathing post ready, full of zingers and well-crafted literary comebacks. I can’t do it now. My lowly opinion is nothing compared to the agony the families of these prisoners must be experiencing.

I have deliberately refrained from engaging in any online debate over the Bali Nine ringleaders and their fates. This is partly because up until recently I didn’t actually know a hell of a lot about it, and partly because I was afraid I’d end up getting into an argument with a friend or acquaintance which would eventually culminate in me losing respect for them and their opinion. But mainly, it’s because I can’t hide my disgust for the “average” Australian sitting in their comfortable suburban armchairs, yelling “kill the bastards” at their television. It hurts me how easily we can separate ourselves from others, how cozily we pass judgement, how ruthless we are in our dismissal of others’ pain, just because they broke the law. Just because they made a mistake. Who here on this planet has never made a mistake? I just wonder how gung-ho these armchair executioners would be if these men were their own family.

Yes, these people broke the law in a country that upholds the death penalty. Yes, they did the crime therefore they should do the time. I’m not arguing against Indonesia’s laws although I vehemently disagree with them. What hurts my heart is the callous indifference to the fact that these men are now dead. Dead by the hands of other men. Up until their execution I heard people give me all sorts of reasons why the Indonesian government should “kill the bastards”, including that the heroin they were trafficking would have claimed lives here in Australia. Okay, fair enough. But it didn’t. No lives were lost at the hands of Andrew Chan or Myuran Sukumaran with that heroin. (And please don’t lecture me on how heroin destroys lives, I know more about that than I care to. Even after my experience watching a loved one mess herself up with that drug, I still wouldn’t want anyone else’s death to be a payment for her life.) When discussing it with a friend few months ago, she told me she had no sympathy for Chan and Sukumaran because, irrespective of her own feelings about the death penalty, they broke the law. Pure and simple. I then said to her, “can you imagine what it would be like knowing you’re going to be shot in the heart by twelve faceless people?” She said she didn’t want to think about that. That made her feel horrible.

Yeah. Me too.

Truthfully? I don’t know what I want to say, other than I’m grieving for those men’s families. I grieve for those men who were by all accounts successfully rehabilitated and who took ownership of their crimes. I grieve for those countries who utilise state-sanctioned murder as a punishment, and I grieve for those who have died for their crimes in those countries. I grieve for those people who separate themselves from their compassion and empathy because it’s easy to do so from the safety of their own home. I grieve for those who are victims of crime and are still hurting so much that they feel someone else’s death will lessen that pain.

Sometimes people do stupid things for stupid reasons. They still do not deserve to die. To quote Professor Jeffrey Fagan who appeared as an expert witness for Chan and Sukumaran in 2007: “Executions serve only to satisfy the urge for vengeance. Any retributive value is short-lived, lasting only until the next crime.”*

That’s all I have to say.

*Quote from Fact check: No proof the death penalty prevents crime, published on 2 March 2015 on abc.net.au

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Pain For Art

Around September of last year, one of my closest friends was hit by car in Berlin. I got the call early in the morning from his boyfriend, the words crashing into my head and bouncing around inside my skull.

“What? Oh my God, what? Are you okay?” It was all I could say, over and over again, my incredulity belying my shock. This doesn’t happen. This stuff happens to other people, not to my friends. I start to cry. My friend – the boyfriend – starts to cry. The voice in my head utters one word:

“Nope.”

That’s the thing about being a close friend but not the best friend. I couldn’t do anything except ineffectually offer consoling words and lots of ‘I love yous’ to my friend’s family and partner, and sit and wait to find out if he was going to come through the coma, then the brain injury, then the rehab, then the trip back home. Other friends wanted to send care packages full of cards, letters and photos; I couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound trite and disingenuous, when all I wanted to say was “don’t die, okay?”

He didn’t die, and he has recovered like a boss, the only signifiers of his accident being the corrective glasses he has to wear (because one of his eyes was knocked out of place by the car) and two scars on the back of his head. He jokes about his accident all the time. It tickles me that he got hit by a car whilst very intoxicated, running across a Berlin road to reach an after-hours bakery. He almost died for cake. My kind of guy. He can still walk, talk, be funny, and most importantly, he can still write.

I’m rehearsing one of his plays at the moment, and, as always with his work, there’s something in my character which challenges the fuck out of me. The particular challenge of this play I’ll discuss later, but there’s an important piece of information about “Carol” that really didn’t hit me with any sense of brevity until last night: she suffers a brain injury. My friend, who’s directing, gave me a note about playing a particular scene in which Carol is on her journey of recovery, and he said dryly, “as someone who has a brain injury …” I must admit I stopped listening after that because the actuality of his situation smacked me in the face with such force that my mind went blank. And I felt ashamed. I felt ashamed for being a wanky actor trying to find the authenticity of this woman’s situation, congratulating myself on being such an intuitive and sagacious artiste that I could just pluck her emotions out of thin air, and here was someone I loved who experienced this thing sitting in front of me, all matter of fact and candid and non emotive and I had no idea how he got through it all, much less how I was supposed to convey that on stage. I was awestruck, and sad, and grateful all at the same time. I was humbled. Not only did my friend survive this incredible thing, he humbled me with it – no mean feat, let me tell you.

As an actor, my job is to reconstruct, represent, recreate, interpret and narrate a story; a journey, if you will, that one character goes through. This character is a fabrication, even if it’s based on an actual person, therefore one has license to embellish, colour and adorn that character’s personality. My goal with every character is to try to find the human in the fabrication. I try to make the character relatable, if not likeable (because sometimes I play really unlikeable personas), and I’m good at it. I know that. My wife tells me I’m a little conceited about it, and she’s right, but that’s only because it’s the one thing in my life that I’m 100% certain about. I know I can do this, whereas with everything else I only have a vague, hopeful surety that I’m kind of getting it right at least 50% of the time.

Having said that, even in the face of my own arrogance, I am humbled and blessed and thankful that my friend trusted me enough to give me the assignment of representing a small part of his story. He didn’t write this character based on himself, the play is based on several other true stories, but as fate, or divine will, or just a happy accident would have it, here is another opportunity for me to delve further into the mires of the human psyche and therefore learn more about myself.

So thanks, friend, for getting hit by a car so I can know myself better.

Christ, I’m such a wanker sometimes.

My friend has a blog. It’s very good. Check it out.

https://eisforestranged.wordpress.com