By Claude An Shin Thomas Susan Smith was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison for drowning her two children. She is eligible for parole in what, thirty years? Susan's father committed suicide when she was a child. Susan's mother remarried and her husband, Susan's stepfather, sexually abused her when she was a teenager. Susan has several documented suicide attempts and I wonder how many that were undocumented. She has a history of abusing alcohol and, more likely than not, other drugs as well, and a history of promiscuity.
Could no one really see her, see where she was headed? Or the question might also be asked: why did no one intervene in a life so out of control?
None of her sexual partners, all people close to her, responsible and powerful people in their community, some parents themselves, ever said no or questioned her actions. They used her and fed her suffering. To my knowledge she was not involved with any type of program, group, or organization that could help her to recognize and touch her deep powerful suffering and encourage and support her healing.
Where was her community? Where was her support? When I sit with the reality of her action, the drowning of her two children, I am neither shocked nor surprised. It makes absolute sense, a direct result of her deep; abiding and unaddressed suffering. There was nothing else to do but act out. For suffering, left unaddressed, pulls the strings, dictates lifestyles and life choices. It leads us around like a water buffalo with those metal rings through their noses.
That's true not just for Susan Smith but for her whole community, her church, her school, her society and culture. And now, faced with the reality of this deep suffering and the consequences of not addressing it, the community wants to push her out of their consciousness, reinforcing a collective denial.
They wish to believe that Susan Smith's drowning of her children is only about her, not about them. That no one but her is capable of such acts. She has been berated, made evil, condemned, and gotten rid of.
I understand this dynamic. It has touched me because I also have killed. Killed far more people—men, women, children, adolescents—than Susan Smith. But my killing was "justifiable," or so I was told many times, because it was in the service of my country in a time of war. Yes, my killing was justifiable until it came too close to those Americans who were not fighting, who thought themselves different.
When I came home, I, like many other combat veterans, experienced the same thing now happening to Susan. We were sacrificed and continue to be sacrificed to protect the collective denial and the illusions that support it. Because to sit with us, to listen to us, to enter into our skin, means that one has to touch the reality of one's own responsibility and one's own suffering, deep and powerful suffering.
Responsibility is not something external. We are responsible for our actions and the impact that those actions have on others. It is written that the Buddha taught that the only way to enlightenment is directly through our suffering. There is no other way.
Since the cessation of military involvement in Vietnam in 1975, more than 58,000 veterans have died as a result of suicide. At one time 66% of the prison population were vets. Yes, war is violent and the acts committed by combatants would be unfathomable in circumstances other than war. Yes, Susan Smith's actions were both criminal and violent. But there is no cessation to the cycle of suffering if there is no acceptance of our collective responsibility.
The creation of illusions to mask our denial is a more powerful form of violence than the killing. More powerful because these illusions are not visible, because they are the seeds that spawn the acting out.
Must Susan be held responsible for her acts? Yes, without a doubt. But so must her community, her society, and culture. As she is guilty, so are they. Call me by my true names.
I have no idea how to deal with Susan Smith, or for that matter, with society. But I do know that when we stop attempting to avoid the reality of deep and powerful suffering, when we challenge the illusions that keep us trapped in denial, the answers come.
In the summer of 19941 was introduced by Michael Daigu O'Keefe to Bernard Tetsugen Glassman, abbot of the Zen Community of New York. I was preparing to join an Interfaith Pilgrimage for Peace and Life, walking from Auschwitz to Hiroshima.
On our second meeting Roshi Glassman invited me to ordain in a new order that he had created, a Peacemaker order. At first I was surprised, distrusting. I tentatively agreed and was given jukai in Auschwitz.
While on this pilgrimage, the more I walked, the more suffering I witnessed, the clearer I became about becoming a Peacemaker Priest. I said before that I have no idea how to work with a Susan Smith or with society. That is only partly true. By becoming ordained as a Peacemaker Priest, I have committed my life in the most powerful and tangible way that I know to the action of healing and transformation, with a deeper understanding that as I heal my family heals, as my family heals my community heals, as my community heals my society heals. I am not them but I am not separate!
Claude Thomas is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War who has gone to Plum Village to practice since 1991. In 1995, he was ordained a Peacemaker Priest by Roshi Bernard Glassman. Claude has two books forthcoming from Parallax Press.
Reprinted with permission from the Shambhala Sun.