The older I get, the more I become certain of what I do not know. Here’s something I do not know: I do not know if my fierce passion about the subject of evil is learned or inherent.
Sometimes I think the passion is a consequence of my history. My life experience. That the passion was/ is a spontaneous adaptation helping me to survive. I learned it, and that of necessity. I became keenly alert to the subtleties of energy wishing harm to me and others. More than one therapist has suggested that my passion on this topic is some retro-advocacy for the boy I once was. I don’t doubt this is in large part correct.
Other times I wonder if that same passion was/is nothing more than an inherent part of my personality. That I was born with it. In religious language, a charism (gift.) I’m saying it’s possible I would be this way even with an idyllic personal history.
Perhaps it’s both. At once.
What I do know is that, throughout much of my life, some part of my consciousness has been ever alert to malice, whether conscious malevolence or the much more common unconscious variety. I am quick to sense it. To feel it. To smell it. I have often wondered if this passion is a large part of what called me to be a priest. I know I was fascinated learning about the anthropology of the shaman, the elder, the medicine man, the priest, because I quickly saw all these names as naming the same role. All significant cultures find some way to identify in their midst individuals with especial gifts for discerning and distinguishing light from darkness, good from evil.
These people have a knack for putting their finger on the deception. The way truth is concealed or lies advanced to conscript the rights and liberties of others.
I know that I shudder every time I think of Edmund Burke’s (1729-1797) quote “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
I know that everything you need to know about M. Scott Peck’s (1936- 2005) book The People of the Lie: With hope for healing human evil can be found in the title.
I know that my favorite line from the movie Ghandi (1982) is when the Indian leader says, at his sentencing for sedition, “… and I will save the court’s time by stating under oath that to this day I believe non-cooperation with evil is a duty, and that British rule of India is evil.”
But, as with most any passion, there is a light side and a dark side. Even the most noble passions can become exaggerated, distorted, overly dramatized and idolatrous.
The useful part (the light side) of my passion shows up in clinical practice. It helps me to help people tell themselves the truth. To get radically honest about motives, even when what is revealed is unlovely. In some cases, disgraceful. When we admit we are lying, we instantly become perfect tellers of the truth.
I didn’t see the dark side until I was in my 40’s. Ruth, a gifted therapist I met in Colorado, simply observed to me one day that this ever-present vigilance to interpersonal evil and injustice looked … well, exhausting. And perhaps it was exhausting to others, too.
I protested that a man has no higher moral duty than to name evil, to unmask it, and to stand against it at all costs.
She shrugged, unimpressed. “I’m not asking you to renegotiate your moral values. I’m more asking whether you have any other values. It seems like someone spending all or most of his moral energy ferreting out evil might find that his energy is … misappropriated.”
And then she changed my life. “Of course we should take evil seriously. Of course it’s wrong to abuse power, to hurt children, to savage reputations for personal gain, and so on. But, wouldn’t it make more sense to spend a disproportion of your time teaching beneficience?” It seemed ridiculously simple when she said it out loud – helping human beings find what was RIGHT within them, and developing that! In myself, too. Helping husbands and wives learn to love. Helping mother and fathers learn to identify malicious projections, and to replace those destructive energies with powerful moves of love, nurture, sacrifice, leadership and advocacy for their children. The applications were and still are endless.
Indeed, the world contains evil and injustice. But human beings each have a light of goodness, just waiting to be coaxed and encouraged.
Yes, justice matters. But redemption matters more.
(You may drop Steven Kalas a note at skalas@marinscope. com. StevenKalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)