Life’s painful rubbish can be transformed with care, mercy

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Column by David B. Whitlock


“It just doesn’t make sense” is the generalized response from those familiar with the Tsarnaev brothers. They seemed like the kind of young men you might like as neighbors: kind, quite, unobtrusive.

These two alleged perpetrators of the Boston bombings? It just doesn’t make sense.

Or does it?

When anger percolates long enough, it brews a strong pot of hatred which pours a bitter cup of violence. Usually, the stains from that brew spread no farther than the tables of argument upon which they spill. But on rare occasions, under the right circumstances, the wrong personalities drink it down to a deeper, more dangerous level. Words are exchanged for weapons, disagreements for death.

The older one, Tamerlan, spent his early years in a country torn by war, tit for tat between the Chechens and Russian Army. Hatred spawns more hatred, violence more violence. And many in that country are energized by a brand of Islam whose slogan is “Global Jihad.”

Maybe he saw the brutality as a boy before emigrating with his parents to Boston. Perhaps that was when the seed of anger was planted. It could have been nourished secretly, deep within his soul until it grew into hatred.

It must have been pruned during the six months he lived in the Dagestan region of southern Russia in 2012. When he returned to the U.S, Tamerlane’s fruit of destructiveness was souring.

And last week he cut it open, spewing its poison on the streets of Boston.

Somewhere along the way, Tamerlane apparently infected his younger brother, Dzhokhar, with the disease of hatred.

Seeds of anger, despair and hostility are everywhere. They exist in all us. When watered, they grow, and when embedded in collective groups, they can drive an ideology or a religion or a nation. And that becomes very dangerous to us all.

But we also have seeds of love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness. They, too, grow when watered.

What we feed grows; what we starve dies.

The contempt and animosity that is thrown our way can even be transformed.

It can happen. I have evidence in my backyard to prove it.

“Come to my garden,” I say to my family. They humor me and follow along. When the garden is full of vegetables, my visitors enjoy the beauty.

But no one wants to look in my compost bin. The rotten fruit, vegetables, leaves and coffee grounds in it stink. But I can smile even at the stench. You see, I know something. The refuse will be transformed into rich compost. Then I will spread the nutritious compost on the ground, nourishing the fruit and vegetables.

The rubbish of life — the stuff that happens to you that plants seeds of disgust, alienation, revenge — can be transformed and turned back into something rich and nourishing.

A Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hahn, has written about this process: “We should not be afraid of the garbage within us if we know how to transform it back into joy, into peace.”

The compost bin doesn’t smell good today; it’s downright putrid. But if I treat properly what today turns my nose, soon, I’ll open the bin, and the odor will be pleasing. I will know something bad has turned into something good.

A man who once murdered people in the name of religion turned his trash into compost and later was able to write these beautiful words, “Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude … Love does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful and endures through every circumstance” (I Corinthians 13:4-7).

Some people on that awful day in Boston already were turning something terrible into compost when they responded with acts of kindness and mercy, even running toward the danger to help others rather than fleeing in fear.

It can happen.

And it shouldn’t be that surprising when it does. It makes sense. Water the good seeds. They’ll grow. Treat waste properly, and you can turn it into compost.

Let’s just hope it happens to the future Tamerlans and Dzhokhars of this world before seeds of hate bear the fruit of violence and they are mired in their own filth.

David B. Whitlock, a Baptist minister in Lebanon and the author of Life Matters, can be reached at drdavid@davidbwhitlock.com.