Aligned with the song by Daniel Powter, Bad Day, most of us can get through one bad day. But how many of us can get through many bad days, many bad weeks, bad months or even bad years?  How many of us can get through them and retain our belief in a just and fair world, in human decency?  When it feels as though the world is playing some kind of sick joke, how many of us can avoid slipping into deep resentment, bitterness and victimhood?

Two contrasting individuals immediately spring to mind.  Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe.  What separated them so that one became a Hero and the other a monster?  Mandela and Mugabe became two of the most prominent leaders on the African continent since the African nations began achieving independence a half-century ago. They shaped their countries in dramatically different ways, and yet before coming to power, they had remarkably similar lives.

There was however, a crucial difference between them. It was how they responded to events in their lives.

Whereas Mandela used his prison years to open a dialogue with South Africa’s white rulers in order to defeat apartheid, Mugabe emerged from prison bent on revolution and determined to overthrow white society by force, pursuing a number of spiteful agendas.  Mandela became a Hero. Mugabe became a Monster.

What does it take to turn an ordinary person into a monster? To create a mass shooter, a terrorist, a dictator or Joker, Batman’s antagonist, from the new Joker movie?

Receiving death threats and fleeing from South Africa to the UK after blowing the whistle on the LeisureNet Ltd CEOs, which ultimately became known as ‘South Africa’s Enron’, the investigation team established that LeisureNet ought to be liquidated.  To liquidate would result in 8000 South African job losses, a significant dent in a struggling South African economy.  To avoid this, the investigating team reached out to Mandela, to request his willingness to call on his international network of friends to explore if any one of them would consider purchasing the liquidated LeisureNet. 

This was, of course, a very helpful intervention by Mandela, as Richard Branson went on to purchase LeisureNet and re brand the South African health clubs as Virgin gyms.  The problem, and the cascade of outcomes that arose, was due to me having been recruited by UK recruiters, Robert Half, to be employed by Richard Branson to head up the Virgin Group Treasury position in Notting Hill Gate, London. In a bizarre, quantum twist, these two events converged simultaneously.  As the South African media reported on toxic negotiations between Branson and the joint CEOs I’d blown the whistle on, I became collateral damage to their negotiations.  I was fired and marched off the Notting Hill gate premises in a Kafkaesque fashion.

Watch .37sec video of Richard Branson being interviewed on ITV about his purchase of LeisureNet

Labelled as a whistleblower and having been fired by Richard Branson, I became blacklisted internationally.  As a result I’ve never worked as a corporate treasurer or accountant again. I’ve never been employed again. And the result of this was that I was cast out of the human and divine systems of care and protection that sustain life, needing to squat in a house and beg on the streets with my twelve year old son to survive.

This was my ‘one bad day’, which stretched on for eighteen long years.  In a paradoxically similar fashion to Mandela’s own expulsion from society, having to spend twenty seven years behind bars, I was banished from the playground of life, cast adrift, forced to live a life of abject poverty.

You can imagine what a day as bad as that would do to you. I’m guessing it wouldn’t turn you into a super-villain or a serial killer. But, it might lead to serious mental health problems. Maybe anxiety. Maybe depression. Maybe worse. For many, a major life tragedy can drive them over the edge.

How would respond?
How would you respond?

Let’s return to the new Joker movie and explore what the Joker and Batman have in common with my blog.

Once, Joker was an ordinary man. He was trying to be a good husband, preparing to be a father, and striving to make it as a stand-up comic. But his jokes were bombing and his family was trapped in poverty. He felt like a failure. He was overwhelmed by humiliation and guilt. Then a criminal gang offered him a way out. If he helped them with just one crime, he’d be rich. Desperate to turn his life around, he accepted. Joker had unknowingly stepped onto the descending, slippery slope.

And then, the “one bad day” happened. On the day of a planned heist, his pregnant wife died in a freak accident. He tried to back out of the criminal scheme, but the gang wouldn’t let him. Then the heist went bad. Batman showed up. Trying to escape capture, the Joker jumped into a pool of toxic waste. He emerged looking like an insane clown. Then he started acting like one. And he never stopped.

One bad day broke him. One bad day drove him to madness and murder.

This raises important real-life questions. What can we do in the face of tragedy? How can we reduce suffering? How can we prevent evil? How do we avoid being captured by a sense of hopelessness and victim hood?

Suffering leads some to embrace nihilism and resentment. And some have used their nihilism and resentment as excuses for monstrous acts.  Suffering leads some to believe that life is a “joke being played on us.” This makes them resentful toward society, life, even existence itself. For some, this worldview has motivated “mass murder, often followed by suicide. The Columbine High School massacre of 1999 is such an example.  Harris and his killing partner murdered ten fellow students before killing themselves. The day before the massacre, Harris demonstrated his nihilism when he wrote in his journal:

“It’s interesting, when I’m in my human form, knowing I’m going to die. Everything has a touch of triviality to it”

I recognise this sentiment. Going into the tenth year of attempting to secure justice in my whistleblowing case, when I felt Life was rubbing my nose in it, I wanted to give up. Friends and family urged me to stop co operating with the many agents seeking my support in their legal cases.  I visited my tipping point often and always stepped back from the ultimate edge.

My thoughts often turned to Mandela. Did he give up after receiving a life sentence?   Did he let go of his passion and fight for a fairer South Africa in the belief that his life behind bars had now become meaningless? Did he surrender to what must have felt like impossible obstacles? Would he use his ‘one bad day’ as a reason to embrace nihilism and wallow in resentment?

Could the answer to these questions motivate me?

Joker exclaimed, ”It’s all a joke! Everything anybody ever valued or struggled for… It’s all a monstrous, demented gag!”  Joker also ranted about “life, and all its random injustice” and “the inescapable fact that human existence is mad, random and pointless.” He deliberately chose to go insane, because, “In a world as psychotic as this… any other response would be crazy!”

I would tell Joker he’s wrong. Ordinary people can maintain morality and sanity even in the face of tragedy. Indeed ordinary people do so every day. Everyday heroism is the rule, I believe, rather than the exception.  I’m not talking about out of this world characters with super powers. Ordinary people, like the character Batman, can turn away from the dark path of nihilism and resentment, even in the face of tragedy.

Watch 2 min video to explore how Batman found meaning and empowerment in personal tragedy, how he became a force for good.

Inspired by my reflection of Mandela, I held firmly to my principles and called, not for vengeance, but for justice and the rule of law by becoming a spirited defender of the truth. I refused to give in to resentment and bitterness and as a result and with humility, I was able to retain my human decency. The creation of my organisation, SpeakOut SpeakUp Ltd arose because I wanted to bring meaning to bear on my own suffering. To find a smarter and better way, in order for others, individuals, organisations and society, to avoid the social injury that so often happens as a result of whistleblowing.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is another everyday hero who demonstrated that the human spirit is capable of much more than we anticipate.  Solzhenitsyn had every reason to question the structure of existence when he was imprisoned in a Soviet labour camp, in the middle of the terrible twentieth century. (…) He had been arrested, beaten and thrown into prison by his own people. did not allow his mind to turn towards vengeance and destruction.

Instead of taking the path of nihilism and resentment, he chose the path of self-improvement, even while sick and imprisoned. That path led him to write a book about the horrors of the Soviet prison system called The Gulag Archipelago. This book was so powerful, so influential, that it contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Russia still has political prisoners suffering abuse, but probably far fewer thanks to Solzhenitsyn.

So what’s the difference between Batman and Joker, between Solzhenitsyn and the Columbine killers, between Mandela and Mugabe? Why does suffering turn some people toward heroism and others toward monstrosity?

Responsibility Is the Key 

Eric Harris, one of the Columbine killers, surely had to endure some suffering and injustice, perhaps especially at school. But rather than assume any responsibility for his situation, he chose to place all the blame on others.  And Joker’s “one bad day” was largely of his own making. But he took no responsibility for it. Instead, he blamed “the world” and chose insanity as way to suppress such memories altogether.

During his many trials, Solzhenitsyn encountered people who comported themselves nobly, under horrific circumstances. He contemplated their behaviour deeply. Then he asked himself the most difficult of questions: had he personally contributed to the catastrophe of his life? If so, how? He remembered his unquestioning support of the Communist Party in his early years. He reconsidered his whole life. He had plenty of time in the camps. How had he missed the mark, in the past? How many times had he acted against his own conscience, engaging in actions that he knew to be wrong? How many times had he betrayed himself, and lied? Was there any way that the sins of his past could be rectified, atoned for, in the muddy hell of a Soviet gulag?

Solzhenitsyn pored over the details of his life, with a fine-toothed comb. He asked himself a second question, and a third. Can I stop making such mistakes, now? Can I repair the damage done by my past failures, now?  That was the mindset that empowered him to not only survive but to change the world.

I have chosen to ask myself the same challenging questions, many times over.  It’s only in hindsight that I have been able to look back and consider and accept my own contribution and responsibility in ‘South Africa’s Enron’. My blind support of the joint CEOs. My expressed loyalty. My rationalisation of questionable behaviours. My deference. My silence when they took their first step onto the slippery slope of unethical practices.  I looked the other way, minded my own business, waiting for an additional six years before actually speaking up. I now firmly believe that if I had been practised and skilled in Courageous Conversations, I could have changed the trajectory of LeisureNet, for the better.

The Choice

So, what does it take to turn an ordinary person into a monster? “One bad day” is Joker’s answer. But he’s only partly right because it all depends on how one responds to tragedy and suffering.

If a person responds by fleeing responsibility, by sinking into nihilism and resentment, that can indeed lead to monstrous acts that perpetuate tragedy. Even if it doesn’t get that bad, that path can still make ordinary people miserable.

But if we respond by embracing responsibility, we can help prevent unnecessary tragedy and find true meaning in life. Responsibility is what it takes to turn an ordinary person into a hero. Madness is the emergency exit.

You can always step outside, and close the door on all those dreadful things that happened. You can lock them away forever. That’s a bad idea. Your Memory is a tool. Memory is the past’s guide to the future. If you remember that something bad happened, and you can figure out why, then you can try to avoid that bad thing happening again. That’s the purpose of memory. It’s not “to remember the past.” It’s to stop the same damn thing from happening over and over.

Recurring memories are trying to teach us something. If, like Joker, we run away from bad memories, especially ones fraught with guilt, we can never learn their lessons.

One of the tools we empower participants at Courageous Conversation Growth-shops is to learn how to map the contribution system and to abandon blame.  Mostly, when things go systemically wrong  everyone has contributed in some important way.  The atrocities of the Holocaust were made possible by normal people, manipulated into conforming to a horribly abnormal set of behavioural norms and who remained silent

Of course, this is not how we usually experience contribution. And not all suffering and tragedy involves our contribution, but most do. A common distortion is to see contribution as singular—that what has gone wrong is either entirely our fault or (more often) entirely theirs. Only in a B movie is it that simple. In real life causation is almost always more complex. A contribution system is present, and that system includes inputs and influences from people, including the choice to remain silent.

The goal of engaging in Courageous Conversations isn’t to get an admission. The goal is to understand better what’s happened and/or what’s happening so that you can start to talk constructively about where to go next.

Be like Batman!

SpeakOut SpeakUp