What About Evil?

Many years ago William S. Burroughs wrote: “The face of evil is always the face of total need.” I’ve kept this in a back corner of my mind until now when it seems necessary to bring the question of evil forward.

Philosophical debates about the nature of evil, or religious commentaries on Satan, or struggles in the judicial system with criminal behavior, have not interested me. I’ve wanted practical, here-and-now guidelines about how to think about evil and how to deal with its presence in our lives.

I started by asking some friends about their ideas. At first most of them just became quiet because they had to stop and think. They did not have quick and ready things to say. Is evil a concept that’s become outdated? One that’s no longer familiar in the mainstream of our indulgent and permissive culture? It certainly wasn’t part of my training as a psychotherapist, which required us instead to be completely non-judgmental. Then, when it isn’t being ignored, it seems to be a discussion assigned only to some religious denominations. Although we are quite comfortable thinking about right and wrong, good and bad, justice and injustice, we avoid considering evil.

Children are usually brought up to be kind, fair, and honest and there is evidence that these qualities are innately human. I enjoyed reading recent research such as that of Paul Bloom and his colleagues  published in The New York Times Magazine:
“Not long ago, a team of researchers watched a 1-year old boy take justice into his own hands. The boy had just seen a puppet show in which one puppet played with a ball while interacting with two other puppets. The center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the right, who would pass it back. And the center puppet would slide the ball to the puppet on the left…who would run away with it. Then the two puppets on the ends were brought down from the stage and set before the toddler. Each was placed next to a pile of treats. At this point, the toddler was asked to take a treat away from one puppet. Like most children in this situation, the boy took it from the pile of the ‘naughty’ one. But this punishment wasn’t enough – he then leaned over and smacked the puppet in the head.”

 Well, for several good reasons we can’t smack most perpetrators of evil on the head. And then too, evil involves something different from what’s bad or wrong. It’s more destructive, more sweeping, and punishment is often not a remedy. I experienced this difference in a dream about a human form that was violent, greed-driven, focused, relentless, and filled with a quality of coldness that is hard to express. It left me with a feeling of shuddery revulsion. This was at a time when I remembered Burroughs’ quote incorrectly and called it “absolute need” instead of “total,” and this was an experience of absolute coldness. There was not a shred of compassion in the form’s pursuit of its needs and it was blind to everything except getting what it wanted no matter how much terrible harm or pain it caused.

A Biblical saying about money being the root of all evil is actually, “The love of money is the root of all evil.” That’s a useful correction and takes me to the Buddhist value of non-attachment, a precept that advises us not to push for what we want (or don’t want) with too much strong emotion. “Non-attachment” is not “detachment” – it has nothing to do with not caring. It’s about keeping our balance without being disconnected. It’s a way of not doing damage because of any “total needs.”

So, how are we to think about evil and deal with it?

For me there are several steps. First, it’s important to be able to recognize evil so that we do not become netted in by it. Not seeing evil when it is there is not sweet innocence – it’s dangerous ignorance. It’s useful to ask what motivates the leaders of a country, or corporation, or community, or family. Are they dedicated to selfish and single-minded and destructive goals? Is harm being done?

It’s easier to look “out there” to see and identify evil, but it’s best to start by facing ourselves. It’s a hard question to ask – “Am I involved with needing something totally?” But this is a crucial honesty. Knowing what is true in our own selves, we have a chance to outgrow old perspectives and limitations. Then we can live with healthy self-interest and with compassionate, balanced concern for all around us. Of course, that is easy to recommend and hard to accomplish.

What does any of this have to do with the central interests of WINN?
Is it relevant to understanding subtle energies, states of consciousness, and healing? My answer is yes. As there is goodness and evil in our material reality, there are also forces of light and dark in the non-material dimensions. It’s useful to know this.

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“The Moral Life of Babies” is the title of Paul Bloom’s article in The New York Times Magazine for May 5, 2010

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  1. RF says:

    Celia, thank you for your thoughtful commentary. It reminded me of a quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn: If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
    Yes both you Solzhenitsyn are correct, In that it starts with each of us: skillful actions of the body, skillful actions of speech and skillful actions of the mind.
    Thanks again for your thoughtful article.

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