“I used to be a little boy
So old in my shoes
And what I choose is my choice
What’s a boy supposed to do?
The killer in me is the killer in you”
– Lyrics from the song Disarm by Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins

What is the right response to an unspeakable act of violence? If the abuse or assault happens to you or a loved one, seeking retribution might seem to be your only choice. But if you’re David Breaux, aka the Compassion Guy, he would want people to show the same compassion he worked diligently to spread in our community. He would want us to have the courage to forgive the person who took his life. Carlos Dominguez, 21, a former UC Davis student, is accused of killing Breaux and a 20-year-old UC Davis student and seriously injuring a 64-year-old homeless woman. All were brutally stabbed, outdoors, at night during a murderous rampage in my hometown of Davis, California.

Human behavior is complex and can be influenced by our environment, culture and biology. We might not ever know what provoked Dominguez’ actions, or other senseless acts of violence perpetrated more frequently by young men in our country. His family and friends were shocked to learn that the former high school athlete, straight A student and affable person could commit such a heinous crime.

Illustration of a brainRobert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist and author of the book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, wants us to know that there are no easy answers to explain human behavior. He says, “while we are a miserably violent species, we’re also extraordinarily compassionate and altruistic.”  Sapolsky believes that humans make decisions based on multiple factors that “range from the second before a choice is made to the moment thousands of years ago”, deep in our evolutionary past. For instance, if your current environment is stressful, or if you’re tired, hungry or in pain, then your amygdala (the area in your brain that is central to fear and aggression), will be more susceptible to elicit a momentary hostile response. The impulsivity of road rage comes to mind in this case. Furthermore, the decisions you make as an adult could be shaped by the way your brain forms and matures during childhood. A child raised in a family environment that is abusive and unloving can have negative physiological consequences which include becoming an aggressive and violent adult. Yet Breaux, who grew up with an abusive father, ended up caring for him during his dying days. He chose compassion instead of repeating the cycle of violence that his father inflicted on him as a child.

Like many, I’ve struggled to comprehend the brutal violence that recently took place in my community. Our society’s ills, including the political polarization of our country, have put us on edge. Years before her brother’s murder, Maria Breaux received a message from him: “Today while at the bench in Davis, I experienced someone who seemed to want to hurt me. I’m noticing incidents here in town of people actively opposed to who I am and what I do.” He asked his family to forgive any who may harm him. “If I’m ever harmed, and unable to speak for myself,” he said, “forgive the perpetrator and help others forgive that person.”

David Breaux believed that it takes compassion and forgiveness to create a more just and peaceful world. In honor of him, we can all do better as a community (friends, neighbors, parents, teachers, citizens) to pay closer attention to boys and young men struggling to make their way in the world. When there’s despair, they need to hear and to be shown that there’s always hope. Perhaps we can encourage them towards volunteering in their community or into a mentorship program with an older man. Just one positive relationship with an adult can help build resilience and possibly save a person’s life.