Ever felt the presence of evil?
Evil is not a word I bandy about. I never use it casually just to mean something or someone I don’t like. I don’t say “evil” when what I mean is sin. No; I reserve the word for specific occasions.
Like, the occasion of evil.
In recent decades, psychology has been more and more willing to investigate evil as a possibility in human mental health. For centuries, the word was reserved for theologians and the like. The first salvo I remember was delivered by M. Scott Peck’s “The People of the Lie.” He opens the book with a story about a father, mother, and two brothers. One of the brothers completes suicide. On a subsequent birthday, the surviving brother opens as his gift from his parents the very firearm with which the dead brother killed himself.
And I took a very deep, very sobering breath. How could you not know that act was … evil?
See, the most important thing to notice about evil is its often subtlety. It rarely begins as any dramatic physical threat to people. It begins as something simple, often seductive and pleasing. A siren call to the ego to loosen its moorings to principle, turning entitled fantasies into ambitions, actions, and eventually needing and willing to hurt people to get to where it is going. Twisted manipulations of people unwilling to know their own feelings and motives.
The significant majority of murders are not – repeat not – committed by sociopaths. They are committed by ordinary people like you and me. By people who know each other intimately. This is chilling.
Even more chilling, somehow to me, probably because the subtlety is even greater, are those times when I observe families who seem to identify one family member around which they surround energies of “the double-bind.” In psychology, to double-bind someone is to surround them with contradicted expectations, emotional blackmails, and chronic patterns of behavioral inconsistency, leaving the person in a no-win position in the relationship. If you target a young child with these energies, you can actually induce symptoms of mental illness. That is, the child is not crazy, but will begin to act crazy. And you can do this to a child without getting close to doing anything “wrong” – that is, chargeable or actionable, or even recognizable by most people.
It breaks my heart to watch a young person leave my office after a session celebrating a few steps forward, only to believe in my heart they are headed back to The Poison Forest. That’s a near-famous metaphor in my industry, the idea being that it doesn’t matter how hard you work to bring a tree back to health if in the end it lives in a poison forest.
Ordinary, otherwise good and gifted people can weave an evil around others. Political evil. Evil that destroys reputations. Evil that humiliates. I think often of the character Nurse Ratched from the Ken Kesey novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest,” whose need to defend her persona of power and control requires her to shame, humiliate and expose a mental health patient, Billy. Billy kills himself. I’ve always said that, in the end, the only one responsible for suicide is the one who decides to die. But, there are a few scenarios that give me pause. Nurse Ratched killed Billy, as sure as I’m standing here.
Ordinary, otherwise good and gifted people can find themselves pulled in to the evil of others. Wrong place, wrong time. They were unsuspecting. Perhaps their motives were even pure. And the next thing you know, they are surrounded by consequences and carnage, lawsuits and subpoenas, going to funerals, or lying in at casket at their own funeral.
I look back at my career as priest, pastoral counselor and crisis worker. I’ve taken risks. I’ve been in dingy apartments in dangerous neighborhoods, talking drug addicts out of hell. I’ve stared down abusive parents and (thank heavens rarely) received threats from those whose evil I was called to name. I’ve talked people out of the weapon they were holding in their lap. I’ve sometimes been smart, sometimes been egregiously naïve, but now I think often just plain lucky.
I’ve been or have suddenly found myself in contexts in which I’m battling more than a mere human in need and distress. It’s evil, an energy whose calling card is always death, or if not, despair and ruin.
If you are ever called to confront these energies, you can’t not be at risk.
(You may reach Steven Kalas at email@example.com. Steven Kalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest who writes a regular column for this newspaper. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)