I was surprised by Orlando — not the wholesale carnage of the latest gun violence, which has become too familiar to shock any American — but the virulently anti-gay sentiment which apparently motivated the killings.
I came out 35 years ago, so I’m no stranger to homophobia. I’ve heard all the slurs; I’ve been heckled for daring to hold my girlfriend’s hand in public. Once, a man on a crowded city sidewalk jostled us roughly, muttering “butch” beneath his breath. Another time, in Home Depot, a fellow customer approached us. “Thanks for showing my kids that,” he said, his lip curled in disgust. (It was a woefully missed moment. I should have responded brightly: “You’re welcome, and here’s more for the young’ns!” — and then dipped and kissed my girlfriend.) In one particularly memorable incident, as we were walking hand-in-hand, people in a passing van — apparently at a loss for the correct epithet — yelled “Nigger!” at my decidedly white self and equally Caucasian girlfriend.
In the age of same-sex marriage, it’s become easy — sort of — to laugh at such memories as anachronisms of a less enlightened era. But then Sunday, and Orlando, and a third of the people in a crowded gay bar killed or wounded by a shooter motivated by an ambiguous but lethal rage.
Early evidence points to Omar Mateen as not only a murderous homophobe but an acolyte of terrorism. During a 911 call while the attack was underway, he pledged allegiance to ISIS and other jihadist groups, though that may have been a cynical last-minute move to elevate a personal vendetta to the level of a holy cause.
Still, it’s easy to cast Mateen as someone decidedly not like us, a goon carrying out the malevolent anti-gay agenda of radical Islamic terrorists. And that he may have been, on one level. But on another — Mateen’s ex-wife described him as a violent domestic abuser, mentally unstable and possibly struggling with his own sexuality — he was just a little piece of darkness that found a bigger piece to join with. One of us, in other words, who lost his way.
There’s a well-known story about a Native American elder who was asked how she became so wise, happy and respected. “In my heart,” she replied, “there are two wolves: a wolf of love and a wolf of hate. It all depends on which one I feed each day.”
I’ve come to believe that we have whole packs of wolves in our hearts. Some are aligned with love and its angels, some with fear and its dark children: anger, hatred. Other wolves roil uncertainly in the middle, their allegiance shifting from day to day as we navigate the difficulties of living in this human skin.
Reporters covering Orlando in the immediate aftermath of the shooting made much over the question of how Mateen became “radicalized” — whether his declaration of terrorist allegiance sprung from some formal affiliation with ISIS and its ilk or self-indoctrination with jihadist Internet propaganda. Evidence points toward the latter. But the larger truth is that Mateen was radicalized — as we all are — by life itself, by a confluence of causes and conditions that left him the choice we all face: Love or hate? Lightness or dark? Courage or fear?
It’s a choice that can readily pit us against ourselves, struggling to bring forth our best nature, while suppressing — or raging against — what we dislike. But civil wars extract an awful cost. As humans, we yearn to wholeheartedly answer the call to greatness, the call to our highest nature, which is love. But if we cannot first bring this love to ourselves — to all we have become under the radicalizing influence of life and loss — we languish from emotional attrition, our vital force leached by inner conflict. Or, we cede the struggle and yield, as Mateen finally did, to hate, and to darkness.
The Indigo Girls’ Prince of Darkness is one of my favorite songs; the imagery is Christian, but the struggle universal. I play it as an encouragement and a reminder: about those two wolves, and the others that mill about in my heart and yours. About the call to love not just what we cherish in ourselves and each other, but what is difficult. So, here it is: a prayer for all of us grieving — especially, today, those in Orlando — and for all of us striving, everywhere, ever and again, to feed the wolf of love.