“To kill without remorse is to feel like a god.”
– Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Season 3, Episode 15, “Consequences”
It’s amazing how there can be several hundred hours in any given franchise, but it’s a handful of moments that stay with us, even decades later. What made this one stick with me is how it so simply and accurately sums up a major reason for why people hurt each other: because they like it. It’s the pleasure of power, the feeling that they can do this and get away with it, not even feeling bad for it. It’s quite a heady feeling.
When Angel says this, he is speaking from many long years of experience, and he’s speaking to a young woman, Faith, who has only just tasted the pleasure he remembers wallowing in. That pleasure, however, is a defense mechanism. She did something very bad without meaning to, and now she’s trying not to be haunted by the death she caused. She’s trying to avoid the horror that naturally follows such an act, and so she is beginning to take pleasure in the kill instead. She’s always run to pleasure before, to escape the horrors of her life, and somewhere along the way that morphed into something automatic and all-consuming. She’s taking pleasure, now, in taking, and casting aside, anything that suits her fancy. What greater pinnacle of such is there, than to savor taking a human life?
That extends to many other things, besides taking human life. Most people don’t ever do that, specifically, but we all make mistakes, some worse than others. Be it the smallest slight or the greatest sin, we all do bad things and wrong things and hurtful things, and none of us enjoy being held accountable for it. No, we prefer doing whatever we want, mistakes included, without the burden of conscience or consequence. It’s much more pleasant, and less painful. This is part of what makes the drug of empowerment so heady, addictive, and dangerous, especially when the alternative is confronting the merciless, horrific truth: that we have done something reprehensible.
That feeling of empowerment, of supreme, self-preserving ego, it’s nothing more than an empty shell. It’s a defense mechanism, and a highly addictive one which breeds further justifications, further defenses, which must be defended to the death, lest we face the horror of one’s actions. That excitement and exhilaration we get when we succumb to our brutal wrath, our spiteful envy, our lust for violence, or any number of other behaviors… it hollows us out inside. It twists, consumes, strangles, or simply drives out everything truly human about us.
That’s what remorse is there for, to remind us of the truth that we did something wrong, and we need to do something to make it right. It’s not pleasant, or easy, but it keeps us human. To try and evade that natural, humanizing pain… if we do that, then we lose a bit of our humanity, don’t we?
To be free from remorse for our misdeeds — be those misdeeds large or small — is to also be “free” of the love that such remorse springs from. To empty ourselves of such natural, wonderful love for our fellow beings, just to avoid the painful burden of our sins and other mistakes, that is not what it feels like to be a god, I think. Not really.
In the Bible, Cain murdered his brother Abel with a rock, and declared that he was free. Did he feel like a god? Or was that a devil he felt like, all short-sighted and taking delight in a moment of violent power over his saintly brother? A moment which soon passed, and left him wallowing under the judgment of God and mankind alike.
And then, also in the Bible, we have the Son of God, the greatest of all, who did not avoid suffering and remorse at all. No, He took on all the pain, no matter that He did nothing to earn it.
So, which side really feels like a god? The one that tries to evade the pain of remorse through pleasure, or the one that faces it head-on? One side has love, and the other side has only the pain it tries to bury beneath pleasure.
For this reason, I am wary of my own more savage inclinations. It’s that little whisper in my heart that tells me not to pity those who suffer from their own actions. It’s that temptation to take fiendish glee in the suffering of those whom I see as responsible for the suffering of good people. It’s that hard, unyielding instinct to destroy any who threaten me and mine, and feel nothing, or even feel pleasure, for it. It’s that white-hot rage that says “torment,” and that cold, cold anger that says, “kill.” I don’t want that darker voice to win. I don’t want to be the devil that pretends to be a god. I don’t want to be like all those people who are filled with hatred, envy, and greed as they rampage through the community, preying on everyone in their path and burning everything in their wake.
I want my heart, my soul, and my life to be filled with better things, with love, and hope, and peace, and real, lasting joy. If having that means I must endure remorse for my actions, sorrow for my sins, and pain for the pleasures I too hastily indulged in, then so be it. I would face all the wrongs I have ever done, rather than let myself be trapped by them.
Maybe that is why it has always been one part of my nature to face the consequences of my actions head-on. Maybe that is the real reason why Angel’s words have stuck with me so well.