A recent gift of 86 episodes of an old American television series (1999-2007) has reminded me that we sometimes find important lessons in strange places. I concede that in this case the source is entirely improbable, yet nevertheless it offers counter intuitive wisdom that is surprisingly useful in discussions with our children and grandchildren about painful relationships, revenge and the importance of inclusivity. Popular culture frequently serves as an effective discussion facilitator with the young and right now -- after Newtown, Conn., and Taft, Calif., we need all the help we can get.
"The Sopranos" is the story of an Italian-American family inside the criminal society of a New Jersey mafia in which revenge is the standard response to disrespect and disobedience. Episode after episode, brutally executed physical punishments result in hospitalization and a lot of funerals. Everybody has issues with anger management and the characters can't string 10 words together without using f**k as a verb, noun, adverb or adjective. Why would such a program be popular, indeed, so well liked that it is offered six years later as a Christmas present? What's so charming about "The Sopranos"?
What attracts us is Tony Soprano's nuclear family and the ordinariness -- almost pure banality -- of their lives parallel to the daily management of a regional mafia organization. Inside looking out, Tony and Carmela look just like any other suburban couple trying to raise two kids and get them into college. Tony supports Carmela's materialism. Carmela copes with her husband's occasional philandering. Tony is in psychotherapy to treat anxiety. Carmela goes to parent-teacher conferences. Tony goes to all his daughter's soccer games.
For some of us, however, "The Sopranos" was -- originally -- and continues to be more disturbing than fascinating. It's demoralizing spending time with the mafia; difficult after an episode not to feel trashy and primitive and a little corrupted for having volunteered to witness cruelty and gratuitous violence. Originally, some fans said that "The Sopranos" was a program they loved to hate while others hated to love it. It can certainly be argued that, after all, it is the outstanding writing and superlative acting performances that impress even the skeptical. But this merely begs the question. Why is immoral behavior worthy of anybody's attention? Can we learn anything from it? About life? About ourselves?
I believe we can. First, we can get up close to revenge. Retribution is the opposite of forgiveness and functions as a barrier to further engagement. Forgiveness is not about the past but the future. It allows us to move ahead and fulfill potential engagement that would otherwise never happen. Most of us need to be reminded of this since soul-piercing humiliation and injured feelings often motivate us to either disengage or reciprocate. The characters in "The Sopranos" are not interested, of course, in keeping doors open because they're preoccupied with survival. For them, revenge is practical. It restores order. As an honor-based culture, the mafia is marginalized from the general society and the benefits of theft and crime outweigh the risks.
And this brings us to the second lesson we can take away from "The Sopranos," i.e., the importance of inclusivity. In his book, "The Righteous Mind," moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes how some people find their own worth by feeling superior to others. This mentality fuels prejudice and perpetuates the idea of "the other" whom in-groups hate and want to dominate. It is no surprise that Irish, Italian, Jewish and Chinese immigrants formed America's various mafias and tongs since none of these immigrant groups had systematic access to white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. Since most of them have successfully passed through the initiation rite of WASP contempt and assimilated into middle class society, racial prejudice has shifted its attention to Hispanics and that other "other" group, Muslims.
We can use "The Sopranos" to remind ourselves of what happens when groups and individuals are marginalized by a dominant culture. The phenomenon doesn't stop with ethnic groups. Kids who are systematically bullied are also among the marginalized. At the end of the fifth season, Tony Soprano meets a rival mafia boss and reminds him that, at the end of the day, what they're all doing is just putting bread and butter on the table. The point is lost, however, since we hear this just when one of the program's most sympathetic characters, "Adriana," is unemotionally executed by Tony's consigliere. This is a terrible moment and most of us react in shocked, embarrassed silence. We distance ourselves psychologically by deciding that the story is "just fiction."
An alternative is to shift our detachment to empathy. We can transform our indifference into compassion and then compassion into a commitment for inclusivity. This means transcending "feeling sorry" and instead, actively engaging in the suffering of others by (a) working to change their circumstances; and (b) teaching them to put bread and butter on the table without resorting to crime. This proactive response associates us with the core value of all religions: the ethic of reciprocity, otherwise known as The Golden Rule.
The next time you see a re-run of an episode of "The Sopranos," instead of feeling morally superior because your own life is civilized, take a deep breath and feel gratitude for your good fortune. Share your feelings with the teenagers in your life and use the occasion as a call to action. Make a pledge to honor forgiveness and reaffirm inclusivity through policies that create fairness and opportunity.