The Passion of Hawkeye Pierce

One of my favorite TV series of all time is MASH. I was aghast a few years ago when a TV Guide list of Best TV Series Ever rated Seinfeld above it, but I don’t want to go into that injustice here. I’ve watched every episode multiple times, quote it at will, and even use it for preaching occasionally.

Thinking about what drove the main character, Hawkeye Pierce, in the series, I’d have to say he was driven by anger. There was more to him, of course, he was a man of great compassion and we saw that from time to time, but Anger at where he was and why he was there burned in him all the way throughout. At times, it got in the way of his compassion.

There is an approach to spirituality that says the emotions are morally neutral, and the opportunity for sin comes from how we respond to them. There’s a wisdom in this, and I used to use this as a guideline in my spiritual direction, but no longer. I think living off emotions is like burning the wrong kind of fuel, and ultimately harms us no matter which direction we try to take it.

In Hawkeye’s case, Anger’s energy drove his commitment to his patients, fed his passion for healing, sustained his thirst for justice, and his yearning for peace. It also drove him to childish disrespect for others who didn’t deserve it: on occasion he realized that when one of his escapades hurt Col. Potter, such as the episode where they made Rosie’s Bar into its own country. It made the selfish side of his nature worse, which didn’t help him with the women, and made him jealous of other talented doctors who came through. Frank Burns was a pompous idiot, however Hawkeye’s cruel treatment of him didn’t make things better. Hawkeye was able to transcend his disdain for Margaret into something else, but in almost all his relationships, Anger made him into his own worst enemy and made him a difficult friend to have.

At the end of the series, Hawkeye went crazy, and the incident that pushed him over the edge was where his anger had fatal consequences for an innocent life. In a situation where he and his friends had to stay absolutely quiet, his berating a Korean woman whose baby wouldn’t stop crying, caused her to do something that appalled him. The contradiction his anger pushed him into was something he couldn’t live with for a long time, and probably affected him off camera after he went home.

There’s a lot of things in the world to be angry with; I don’t think I need to make a list. If there’s something that’s gone more wrong than usual over the past 20 years, I think we’ve let Outrage (a manifestation of Anger) be the primary driver of our politics and relationships. Whether we stand on the Right or Left of a political issue, we’ve let a Hawkeye-like sense of outrage drive us to equating people with the views they hold. At the very least, we tend to let ourselves dehumanize people for disagreeing with us, promoting attitudes and policies that disregard them. If we don’t get what we want, it seems our first trained response these days is outrage, Anger.

Hawkeye was frequently wrong, which MASH illustrated from time to time, and Anger also excuses us from examining our consciences and self-criticism. Anger tries to locate our enemies outside us, blinding us to how we contribute to bad situations. Anger tries to tell us we’re always right, and the problem is always someone else’s responsibility. Whether we express it or hold it in, there’s danger: expressed means we shoot tend from the hip at anyone in range; held in, it makes us uneasy, messing up our insides, distracting us from what we need to focus on. Anger happens from time to time, but I think the best way to deal with it is to try to let it pass like a summer storm. Trying to harness it and ride it somewhere positive is like trying to ride a tornado.

There is a fuel that can drive us as we struggle with injustice that isn’t poisonous, and that’s Compassion. Compassion can sustain us as we try to set matters right, keep us going when there seems to be no hope left, keep us faithful to who we are before God. Father Mulcahy is probably the best example in MASH of driven by Compassion, even though he’s a fairly obvious choice; it also clearly drove B. J. Honeycutt. They worked within the system most of the time, tries to bring peace in the midst of war, refused to get caught up in the turmoil and did unselfish good while remaining human and imperfect. Compassion kept them humble enough to recognize when their ambition went too far, and kept them grounded.  When B. J. was driven by Anger, like the episode after Radar left, it consumed him and he had to let it go before it could be himself again. Compassion motivated Margaret as nurse almost from the beginning of the series as well, even though Anger took her off track almost as often as it did Hawkeye.  The only difference between Margaret and Hawkeye was what angered them, not the frequency or degree of their anger.

Compassion is frequently mistaken for weakness, and sympathy for the undeserving. However, if everyone has a God given dignity nothing can take away, who among us doesn’t deserve Compassion? The problem with conflict is once you start fighting, it’s tough to stop, and it’s tough to see your adversary as human. Anger is dehumanizing; Compassion is humanizing. Compassion isn’t about having the right standards, either. Right standards, right thinking, right actions aren’t worth much unless they genuinely come from within, from Compassion. 

Anger can only accept alliances, will only respect those who have anger against a common enemy.  It doesn’t resolve differences, it sets them aside and doesn’t explore them.  Once the common adversary is gone, the unresolved differences re-emerge and new conflict is born: this is the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan.  If you try to conform blindly with your allies in the midst of conflict, you risk compromising your basic identity: this is the lesson of Eastern Europeans who collaborated with the Nazis in World War II, who had to wait 45 years after the war to emerge from occupation.

Perhaps the best example of a Compassionate world leader struggling against injustice is the Dalai Lama. He promotes the dignity of his country, taken off the map almost 50 years ago, whose independence is valued by few, and yet never villainizes the Chinese government, even when he testifies to the repressive actions they take. He doesn’t try to goad his people into revolution or violent protest.  Whether he succeeds in the short run is irrelevant: since he is acting from Compassion, his cause can never be forgotten until the goal is accomplished.

There are folks who would say Anger can feed Compassion, such as an author I referenced in last Friday’s post. I think Hawkeye is an example of how Anger can cripple Compassion. A truly Compassionate person doesn’t qualify those who receive it. Jesus put it this way: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-48; parallel at Luke 6:27-36) The Letter of James puts it this way: “Know this, dear brothers, everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath, for the wrath of a man does not accomplish the Righteousness of God. (James 1:19-20) ”

St. Augustine of Hippo once said: “Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” Resentment is another form of Anger, and Anger is just as poisonous. It’s a poison that’s affected America and almost every Church in America. However we define Justice and the drive to do Justice, I think we need to call our methods and motivations into question.

Perhaps our great problem in this day and age, whether we are Conservative or Liberal, Traditional or Progressive, is we’ve let ourselves become a world of Hawkeye Pierces. Our problems are perpetuated because we choose to act from Anger, and let Anger drive us. If we could realize how Anger destroys us from within before it burns us out, we might be able to recover a sense of community that humans are intended to live in. Otherwise, Anger will surely destroy us, both individually and collectively, Right or Wrong.


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