By Celia Coates
The first three words of the title, “Some Thoughts About …,” are simple and ordinary, but the fourth word, “Evil,” disturbs the calm. It’s been unfashionable to think in terms of Good and Evil since our society became psychologically sophisticated and has preferred to consider the early childhood history of destructive people and the various kinds of harm they cause rather than the nature of evil itself. I’m not a philosopher or a theologian, but I believe that everyone needs (certainly, I’ve needed) to explore what evil is in order to live the lives we most want. I have needed to be able to look at myself and the world around me, to face and see what is real clearly, in order to make life choices.
The usual definitions of evil are likely to say that it is “the absence of good.” I think that is insufficient. Eleven years ago, I experienced something that taught me an important lesson about true evil.
It happened while I was sleeping, but it was not a dream. It had none of the stop-and-go-and-shift, gauzey sequences of a dream. It was extraordinarily vivid and very physical. I’ll call it a teaching vision. It began in a large hotel room where I was sleeping on a soft bed, sleeping on my left side. In the vision I felt myself waking when I became aware that someone had come in to the room. I was sure I’d double locked the door so I wondered how they got in. I turned on to my right side to see who it was, and then I stood up. In front of me across the room, near the door, was a man dressed in a grey jump-suit or coverall, standing very still, almost rigid, expressionless but staring, his eyes fixed on me. I shouted, “Get out, get out now!” He didn’t move. I was aware of his intense drive to get what he wanted, to do violence to me. He seemed to be all focused force and terribly dangerous. I had no way to escape. I shouted again and he backed to the door, opened it and went out. But he left the door a little way open. It was a trick. He hadn’t left – and when I went to close it all the way, I saw him crouching on the carpeted floor right in front of the door. He sprang forward, wrapped his arms around my legs and lifted me straight up. I could feel his hands on my legs, but they were not hands, they were claws. And he was icy cold. Coldness filled and surrounded him. It was all terribly clear and I felt overwhelming horror. That was when I switched realities and found myself in my own room, safe at home.
This experience left me with the understanding that evil is complete coldness, a pure drive, a great greed, a focused force that cares only about getting what it wants. Hate is not the opposite of love, this kind of coldness is.
I was driving around a local mall where parking places can be hard to find when I saw an opening for my car. I felt a physical alert in my gut – I wanted to grab that parking place! I wanted to get it before the other two cars nearby could reach it. This happened soon after the experience of evil and I had to recognize that quality of selfishness in myself. I wanted that space. The drive for self gain is a necessary part of each one of us – it helps the individual to survive, although getting a parking place is scarcely a life-or-death issue. This kind of self-interest has become a problem in America. The change in values became noticeable in the 1980s with that movie shout from a Manhattan window – “Greed is good!” Of course humans are greedy, but we’ve not made it a positive value before. Now we have become a nation where the ruling ethic, the definition of a good life, has to do with wealth, status, and power and we work hard to grasp it all.
Here’s a magazine ad for a luxury car that caught my attention.
“YOU ARE YOUR ONLY LIMIT.
Take your drive to the next level. The power of a 400-horsepower engine.
The precision of the new steering.
The confidence you need to command the road.”
The good life, success, is about winning the financial sweepstakes, owning the most impressive stuff, outranking others, branding ourselves as though we were ourselves a product. We don’t care about character, we care about celebrity. It is a distorting and destructive way of living and it is not about values cherished in spiritual belief systems found around the world.
In Christianity “God is love.” (John: 4:8). In Buddhism compassion is of great importance. Among many other traditions respect is premier – respect for self, for others, for ancestors, for ages-old practices and community rituals. It’s not an individual me-first kind of set up. In Near Death Experiences when someone crosses to the side of life that could be called Heaven, the most common discovery is the all-encompassing feeling of love and the beautiful community we join. In our psychologized time we speak of empathy rather than love, but this is too small – empathy is good but it is a narrower, much more transactional human emotion. The concept of Love is all-encompassing. It can fill everything and everyone. We don’t say “God is empathy.”
In our time of all consuming self-focus, interest in being good and in the common good has been greatly diminished. It’s become acceptable for anyone to do just about anything that results in material gain. Who was it who said, “man is a meaning-seeking being”? Being rich has meaning? It can make us comfortable, yes, but it cannot help us deal with the great trials in life. And it feeds on itself. No wonder the non-rich majority of our population thinks the system is rigged against them. I remember the lyrics to a song – “Them that’s got is them that gets.” It’s a song I can’t find right now, but it does seem to describe the way things are. If we could consider our lack of concern for others, the element of evil in ourselves and in our world, perhaps we could shrink our selfishness so everyone could share in getting what is genuinely good.
In a book published in 2016 (SACRED AMERICA, SACRED WORLD: Our Mission in Service to All, Hampton Roads), Stephen Dinan wrote with great hope,
“These values reflect that America is beginning to evolve beyond the world view that has been predominant for many decades – the rational-individualistic-materialistic paradigm. We are evolving a more integrated view of systems, a more inclusive philosophy, and a more compassionate global understanding. These emerging values ultimately support a sacred world view in which we all find common ground. A sacred world view is built on reverence and respect for all.”
The silver lining in the dark cloud of the current pandemic might be that we learn we are all in this together, even though the burdens are not evenly shared.
May the warmth of love grow and spread….
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The image that accompanies this post is a photo by Steve Johnson from pexels.com.
A friend has just let me know that the lyrics are from a Ray Charles song.
Thank you, Martha!