A recent tragedy of domestic violence has highlighted the dark reality of many relationships, resounding to us that mental illness isn’t an excuse to be cruel or destructive.
What recent marital tragedy am I referring to? That would depend on where you live and when you are reading this. Unfortunately in every country at any point of the year, there are so many tragedies in relationships and marriages. Domestic violence, emotional or psychological abuse, and intentional cruelty ran rampant across our world today.
The particular case I’m referring to is the case of Hannah Clarke and her three children who had their car set on fire by estranged football player husband Rowan Baxter. Doused in petrol and set alight in the middle of the street, the 31 year old and her three children under six years old were all murdered, followed by Rowan’s own suicide. Like something straight out of a horror movie.
This is a case that has already been given the attention of every media outlet in Australia, even getting repeated mentions in Parliament. It’s a horror story that has truly captured the heart of the nation.
It has been a real triggering incident as well for many people. For those in violent situations, it’s been inspiration to get help. For men who have been perpetuating violence, I was very glad to see this as a wake up call to sort themselves out and get the help they need to stop being violent. That’s true masculinity in my book – being brave enough to get help.
There are other influences which I’ve written about before, such as the role of men and rape culture, what porn teaches us about men, and the importance of men living with a sense of purpose and love in order to avoid dark places in their own minds.
It’s also triggered a back-and-forth between different groups of people about whether or not this issue was an issue of domestic violence, or an issue of mental illness. Those who advocate against domestic violence say that it’s abhorrent and evil, and some advocates of mental health have defended the act as a decision made in mental instability and that perhaps Rowan wasn’t fully in control at the time.
Shortly before the incident, Rowan posted on social media a photo with his children saying “Goodnight my babies, Daddy loves you” . The man clearly had a lot going on in the department of his mental and emotional health.
So the question is, does Rowan’s mental instability justify his actions? If you’ve read the title of this post then you’ll know my position on this one – absolutely not. Mental illness isn’t an excuse to kill children, to burn a young woman, to lash out in anger and rage.
But I don’t think it’s enough to just say that.
The reason I think this question is so divisive is because it’s actually a question that speaks to the heart of all of us a bit more than we would like to admit.
All of us have things in our lives that affect us. Mental illness is one of those big areas. I know myself I’ve gone through seasons of anxiety, panic attacks and depression. I’ve faced dark times in my life that were so bad I needed to use eye drops every day for a while in order to be able to see because I’d been crying so much. There had been things happening in my life for a long time that left me at the end of hope in those areas. So I’ve been there myself before.
I’ve also had many, many people in my life who have been gripped by mental illness, even being on suicide watch or threatening further action. Its effects can be terrible and what it does to your own mind is horrible. So there could be a degree of sympathy for the murderous husband in how dark his own mind must have felt at the time of his angry actions, and I believe there is quite a bit of this out there.
But does being depressed, anxious, even hurt, justify hurting someone else?
We watch movies and stories all the time about people who become monsters and destructive forces. About those who kill and maim from a place of their own pain and circumstance. We see fictional characters like Darth Vader, Magneto, Saruman and Arthas, not to mention all the revenge-driven jilted lovers in romances gone wrong, and real people like Hitler, ISIS and the proponents of the civil wars throughout history – all driven to kill thousands and destroy countless lives because of their own personal demons and view on the suffering they’ve experienced. And there’s always someone who believes in their redemption, who can see the person through the mess. I think there’s been a wave of people out there who have been trying to do that for the troubled Rowan.
But in this extreme example where the lives of a woman and her children have been senselessly destroyed, we clearly all recognise inside of us that we know that there is an absolute nature to right and wrong.
And here’s one of the scariest truths about humanity that we seldom allow ourselves to admit – that we are always in control of our decisions and actions. The heart of the abuser is one that justifies its own actions against its own experiences, believing there was no choice in what happened.
There is indeed a way that seems right to a man but its end is death.
The vast majority of mental illnesses do not remove our ability to choose. While thoughts and feelings may feel automatic, there is underneath those sensations a number of decisions that are still being made. We are choosing what we do in response to our own personal hurt. In fact we have chosen it so many times that we have forged neural pathways in our minds that make the decisions seem like they’re automatic and out of our control.
But like a driver who is still able to use the brakes even though the car has already started to accelerate on its own, so too we can be by choosing to put a stop to the things in our minds and hearts that lead to destructive behaviour.
Mental illness isn’t an excuse to be cruel to others.
I would even go one step further than that – how we feel isn’t an excuse for our wrong actions. If you’ve read my posts before, you’ll know I have massive issues with the sentence, “I can’t help it“.
Perhaps the greatest evil is to think that you’re not wrong. When I’m not accountable or responsible for my own actions, no one is safe. I’m sure Rowan was furious and desperate about the state of his family, but no one in the world would call what he did about it justified.
And yet how many times do we make excuses for our own behaviour? Sure, we might not be pouring literal petrol on the people around us, but perhaps we’re doing that with our words, our actions, our inactions, our indifference. Maybe our spouse is dying inside from criticism, anger, bitterness. Maybe our friends and family cry themselves to sleep because we refuse to change. Maybe we carry the same heart attitude inside of us that is justifying a lot of destructive decisions.
The decision before the wrong decision, and the insidious root of what happened in this family, is that I am justified to do what I want based on how I feel. Based on my mental state. Based on what people have done to me. Because of what they’ve done, we think we’re completely justified in what we do.
But when we do that, we become the same monster that we show such profound outrage for. If you’re reading this and you disagree that you’re not in control of your actions, then men like Rowan can continue to destroy their families unchallenged. Perhaps this is one of the many reasons why this event is so profoundly confronting to us.
Wouldn’t it be terrible to cry outrage about this abhorrent event only to do nothing about the way we ourselves treat the people in our lives?
So in the wake of such a great tragedy, let it serve as a sobering wake up call to all of us that we are more than what we feel. We are in control of our decisions. Even the decision to do nothing about what we’re feeling can lead to the same terrible result as someone actively looking to destroy.
If you need help, if you’re struggling, if your marriage is falling to pieces, if your husband or wife is feeling destroyed, if your kids cower in fear, if you feel like you’re about to snap, if neglect or indifference reign in your relationships, if you’re not living your best life and you know that what you’re doing is affecting other people, get help. Don’t become the monster you hate. Anger rests in the bosom of fools. The choice to do nothing is in many ways just as evil as the choice to blow up at the ones we say we love.
And if you’re in danger, get out. Run. Faithfulness is first broken by the abuser. I believe in forgiveness and reconciliation, but you need the space to be safe before moving forward is possible.
Our own healing is so important. It has to be a constant priority in our lives.
For the sake of the ones you say you love and those around you, find the healing you need.