Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Good and Evil in All of Us

Whenever I see/hear headlines like what happened at the Boston marathon, it takes me back to every other time some horrible evil has become a part of my consciousness--times where it appears that evil won that day.  I have to admit, I don't understand it. I don't understand what kind of darkness comes upon a person's soul to make them believe that killing others is helpful.  They must believe it is helpful, right? Why else would you do it except to change the world into a better place for yourself or those you love? What darkness must make killing "good" in someone's mind? Does a person put on evil one day, like a coat that protects them from even worse elements in their life? And when the deed is done, does the coat come off and good is returned for some period of time? Even if one is "redeemed" but whatever method (spiritual, legal, societal acceptance) does the evil of that coat stick to you -- forever calling your name to return to its warmth?

Writers and storytellers have been attempting to explain this tug-of-war between good and evil from the dawn of mankind. Stories of how the earth was formed often has that tug-of-war of violence and calm. Stories of the gods in every mythos tells of the struggles between good and evil. From the Bible to the latest fantasies, like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, stories provide us a common basis for that constant struggle--whether it is beyond our world and power and the struggle within each of us.

Some believe that we need both good and evil in the world to achieve balance. The rationale is that without evil, we wouldn't know what good is. I don't personally believe that. I would be perfectly fine with a world that only knew good.  Everyday I wake to that world of good. Everyday I try to create that world of good in some small way so that when I go to bed, I can wake to it again. But even wearing my best pair of rose-colored glasses I can't stop the evil from knocking on my consciousness.

In my undergraduate college years, I took a class from a Catholic priest that explored the potential for evil in each of us. It was centered around the holocaust and the culpability of not only the German people but the culpability of people in every nation. We talked about the seemingly smallest decision to ignore your neighbors being ousted from their homes and marched away "for the good of the country" (look at what happened to the Japanese in our own country, or to the Native Americans before then) to the larger decisions of politics and isolationism that chooses to ignore what is happening in other places.  It is not coincidence that the words "ignore" and "ignorance" come from the same root-- a Latin word "ignosco", meaning "not know."  The difference is one of choice. In The Handmaids Tale Margaret Atwood put it best: "Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it."

That college class deeply impacted me. I wish I could say I came away from that class confidently knowing I would have been like the family who harbored the Franks. But that isn't what happened. Instead, I realized I could have been one of those people who ignored what was going on. I could have been one of those people who at worst allowed fear for my safety to rule my decisions; or at best put the onus for my decisions on some authority figure to keep me one-stepped removed from the burning consequences. Believe me, that is not a comfortable realization about oneself.

As I've become older and been faced with many examples of evil in the world, both in politics and closer to me and my work, I've often been faced with difficult choices. I've come to believe that understanding my own ability to do both the good and evil and my own ability to make a conscious choice for good is the only way to fight evil in the end. Ignorance is NOT bliss. Ignoring does NOT erase my culpability. If I can choose good in the small things every day, that practice will stand me in good stead when I am faced with a larger evil and have to stand up to it. That practice will make it easier for me to make the right choice if I ever have a horrific choice to make one day. I hope that day never comes, that test like the holocaust or that test where I have to choose between my safety and the safety of someone else. I believe that now my answer would be different than it was in college.But I won't know for sure until the day comes.

In the meantime, the only way I can deal with the evil like that of the Boston marathon, or the world trade center, or shootings in a mall or a theater, or reading about a parent killing her child, her husband, and then herself, is to continue to make a personal choice for good.  If each of us does that, I have to believe good will win in the end. I have to believe that constant practice prepares us for the ultimate fight of our lives.

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