Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I was the Walrus, but now I'm John.

Thirty years ago today, John Lennon was murdered by a deranged fan.

"Deranged fan" is how everyone in the media--without exception--describes his killer. And I find that increasingly strange.

"Deranged fan" is too easy, too pat. Was Mark David Chapman a fan? Certainly. Was he deranged? Probably. But the stock phrase has become empty and meaningless, a cliche. It's an easy explanation that allows us all to dismiss him without further thought.

I am supposed to hate him. I hate what he did. I absolutely loathe what he did. But I find the man sad and perplexing. I think about what it means to love something so much that you have to kill it, or to love something so much that your love turns to hate, a perversion of the Wheel of Fortune. If you identify with someone so strongly that your identity is inextricably bound up with his, what does it do to you when you destroy him? I also wonder what it is like to live with your actions for thirty years. How do you feel, knowing that millions of people despise you, and that any number of them would gleefully murder you without regret? They want to send him to hell. I think he's already there. I don't know how I feel about that.

This takes some courage to write; as a Beatle fan, and especially a Lennon fan, the safe ground is hate, condemnation, vilification. Pity and compassion are thin ice indeed. But when I see Chapman's face, I don't see a monster. Not anymore. Not the way I did when I was 14 and his face was all over the news, when everything in life was still firmly in the field of duality, of black and white, of right and wrong, of good and evil. I see a sad, lonely, bewildered man.

In my more philosophical moments, I wonder if we choose our lives before we're born. Do we choose our parents, our path, our manner of living and dying? Do we choose with a greater purpose in mind? If so, who would choose to be the killer of an icon? Who would choose to be the icon, destroyed? Did John's death serve a higher purpose? Would a long and peaceful life have diluted the potency of his message? Would "Imagine" be such an anthem, were he still alive, or would we view it as a quaint relic of a more idealistic time? John strenuously opposed the idea of the Beatles petering out, a middle-aged quartet flogging their greatest hits to nightclub audiences in Vegas. The John that held that opinion might well have chosen an early death. Then again, this John, just weeks before his death, clearly felt differently:

 It's better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out. I don't appreciate worship of dead Sid Vicious or of dead James Dean or of dead John Wayne. It's the same thing. Making Sid Vicious a hero, Jim Morrison -- it's garbage to me. I worship the people who survive. Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo. They're saying John Wayne conquered cancer -- he whipped it like a man. You know, I'm sorry that he died and all that -- I'm sorry for his family -- but he didn't whip cancer. It whipped him. I don't want Sean worshiping John Wayne or Sid Vicious. What do they teach you? Nothing. Death. Sid Vicious died for what? So that we might rock? I mean, it's garbage, you know. If Neil Young admires that sentiment so much, why doesn't he do it? Because he sure as hell faded away and came back many times, like all of us. No, thank you. I'll take the living and the healthy.*

I don't know whether any of our martyrs chose their fate beforehand. Whether they did--whether John did--or not, I'm not sure it's relevant to what I think about his murderer. Loving my enemy is a central tenet of my spiritual struggle. It's not easy. It's not supposed to be easy. The most I'm able to accomplish, most days, is compassion. I have more questions than answers, certainly, but I'll keep asking them, and maybe one day I'll figure it out.

*Interview with David Sheff, for Playboy, published January, 1981.


  1. Compassion is a fine place to start, and to be. I think John would appreciate the effort and conflict you have. Peace

  2. I'd rather the whole world feel compassion--just a week or so ago there was that hostage situation in a Wisconsin high school? That was always my biggest fear with all of those lockdown drills while teaching in a K-12 setting, and my own mother teaches not far away from (50 miles) that h.s. And when the boy died, all I felt was immense sorrow and sympathy--clearly, he needed some kind of help, some kind of compassion. And I remember reading a book my MIL lent me on the Rwandan holocaust; in it, the author forgives the murderers of her entire family, the people who forced her into hiding in a bathroom for months--forgiveness and compassion are two traits I certainly hope our minnow can revel in.