Capacity for remorse

In a meeting last week with the Commonwealth’s attorney, we talked about whether or not the man who killed our son would ever offer up some sort of apology or acknowledgement of wrong-doing. I wish I’d recorded his exact words, but since they’ve been in my head ever since, they were pretty close to this: “In my line of work, I’ve learned that there’s a subset of people who live in another world, a world of their own making. They rationalize everything but rarely do they look in the mirror and say, ‘I was wrong.’ I don’t think you’re going to get what you’re looking for.”

I hadn’t realized how much I had assumed about the inner life of this man, not that I imagined exact thoughts, but when he came to mind he was often sitting in a cell regretting, sorry, sometimes his head in his hands, not blaming the police . . . or Casey . . . anymore. I imagined that the “I’m going to hell,” which he cried out when the police officer was questioning him that night–words recorded and played in Court, words uttered as a self-centered moaning of doom–had stretched and deepened . . . had become more than “I’ve been caught and now I’m going to be punished in hell.” That we might some day get an unexpected card in the mail with a scrawl, “I’m sorry I done that to your boy.”

As we walked out of the Justice Center, I felt a wave of new loss. Could it really be that he isn’t truly sorry? Not for himself but for Casey? That after almost four years, the most he can feel is regret that the system he’d been arming himself against had beaten him? And I realized the apology we’d been almost sub-consciously hoping for was something I’d wanted for Casey more than myself. I could imagine Casey listening to the apology and now I see him only waiting for the apology.

Since that meeting I’ve been thinking about the possibility that some people are incapable of remorse, and I just can’t grasp it. Yes, I understand the existence of sociopaths, people with no empathy, or of people whose egos are so grand that they have pushed away all concerned awareness of others, constricting the capacity of their hearts and reducing others to cardboard figures that are of two sorts: helpful to the self or not helpful, beneath notice or in the way. But without some kind of condition that eliminates the power to care, surely even the most corrupted person has some place within, some small bruised spot that feels the pain of others. From this thumb print, doesn’t everyone possess the ability to rise from the defiled self and feel remorse for damage inflicted?

I mean, this is a father!

I don’t know whether the Commonwealth Attorney is right on this or not. He’s not a spiritual leader, he’s a legal authority. He said once when I asked what most of the cases he prosecutes entail, and he said, “drugs, drugs, drugs. Child rapists and murderers.” Years of experience have shown him a reality that I only glimpse from the distance of fiction, televised, brightened, leave-able. I wonder what the Dalai Lama would say about people so broken that they have lost the capacity that makes them human–if remorse is even “human”–if compassion for others, the wish for happiness for ourselves and for others, is something we’ve cultivated and evolved so that it’s now in our dna. If so, then perhaps there’s a man in a cell, his head in his hands, wishing that he could look Casey in the eye and say, “I’m sorry.”

Casey at Gethsemani Abbey in 2008.

2 thoughts on “Capacity for remorse

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