When we confront something we regard as “evil,” it poses a threat to the self-preservation of ego. We are so busy preserving our existence in the face of this threat that we cannot see the thing clearly at all.
Sometimes in Q&A sessions or internet comments I am confronted with the accusation that I ignore “the dark side of human nature.” I would like to unpack that statement. What is the dark side of human nature? It certainly means more than “Sometimes people do some pretty awful things,” because obviously if it wasn’t someone’s fault or intention to cause harm, that is not very dark. Besides, anyone who has read my work knows that I am well aware of the horrible things we humans have done to each other and the planet. No, when we speak of the dark side of human nature we are making a dispositionist claim: that we do bad things because there is bad within us. We bear within us evil, malice, selfishness, greed, brutality, cruelty, violence, hate, and callousness.
On the one hand, this is trivially true: all of these are parts of the human experience. Even if circumstances bring them out, they must be there to be brought out in the first place. But if it were only that, then the situationist response would be sufficient: change the circumstances that elicit evil. No easy task, this: these “circumstances” include the whole edifice of our civilization all the way down to its foundational mythology of Separation and Ascent. Yet still, a more beautiful world is still possible in principle.
As far as I can tell, the critics are saying something more: “It isn’t only that evil is a product of our institutions, though certainly many of them, such as the money system, elicit and reward evil. The evil is prior to any of those; indeed, our evil institutions were created and imposed on us by evil people. Moreover, such people are still among us today. They will not allow you to change the system. There is evil in the world, Charles, fundamental evil. If you comfort yourself with fantasies about how it can be healed, it will simply take advantage of you. The evil must be confronted and defeated.”
Some of these critics externalize the evil in the form of an evil cabal of illuminati that secretly rule the world; others offer a more nuanced position that locates evil within themselves as well. Either way, they view it through an essentialist lens.
Before I respond to this critique, I feel it necessary to establish that I am not ignorant of the worst that has happened, and still is happening, in this world. I know what people are talking about when they refer to institutional and personal evil. What else is it when international creditors extract interest payments from countries where children go hungry? What else is it when women in Congo are raped with bayonets? What is it when toddlers are sent to the gallows? What is it when people are tortured using power tools and pliers? What is it when babies are raped on child pornography webcams? What is it when children are murdered before their parents’ eyes as punishment for labor activism? What is it when Native American children are forcibly sent to boarding schools to lose their language and often their lives? What is it when virgin forests are leveled for profit? What is it when toxic waste is dumped into sinkholes? What is it when cities are flattened by atomic bombs essentially for demonstration purposes? The brutality and hypocrisy on this planet know no limit. The worst things you can imagine one human being doing to another, have been done. If not because of evil, then why?
Any worldview that does not acknowledge the reality of these things will eventually fail us as a source of optimism, faith, and courage. Born into a world where these things happen, we all carry their imprint. Better be aware of it. For me, it is important to sometimes read about the genocide du jour, to look at photographs of tar sands excavation, to read about the worldwide decline in forests, and to touch on the individual stories of people affected by war, the prison industry, and so forth. Only then, seeing the very worst, can my optimism be authentic. It is usually the small, personal cases that get under my skin. For example, there is the woman I met in California who refused to medicate her son with yet another drug that had been prescribed him because, she said, each new drug was making him sicker. He had been prescribed more than twenty and she’d had enough. So child services took her son away. He died a month later. I carry that story and hundreds like it everywhere I go.
If you have eyes to see and ears to hear, you will frequently encounter stories this horrifying, and much worse. Can you peer into the abyss of despair that they offer without falling in? Can you countenance their invitation to hate, to rage, to lash out against evil, without accepting that invitation? This invitation is not unrelated to the despair: by the calculus of war, evil is stronger than good. It has no compunctions. It will use any means necessary. That is why there is no hope within narratives in which an irredeemably evil illuminati control all the world’s governments, corporations, military, and banks.
I would like to point to a different invitation that the horrifying stories offer. It is to vow, “I will do anything in my power to create a world in which this no longer happens.” Integrating such stories into my awareness inoculates me against the still-dominant Story of the World in which things are basically as they should be.
Years ago, my then-wife Patsy visited an in-home day care with the idea of finding a place where Philip could interact with other toddlers for an hour or two a day (neither of us believed in day care). She walked into a scene where two women were taking care of about twelve children ages zero through four, with some help from the electric babysitter—the television. One of the babies, about nine months old, was just at the age of crawling. He couldn’t crawl though, because he was inside a small “playpen”—in other words, a cage. He wasn’t crying; he was just sitting there. Patsy felt sorry for him, all penned up like that. “Why can’t he come out?” she asked. The woman in charge said, “Look how busy we are. He gets into everything. We can’t have him out with this many kids to feed, to change, to watch …”
“I’ll watch him,” Patsy said. The woman agreed the baby could be let out for a while.
So Patsy took him out of the playpen. As soon as he was set free, the baby’s face lit up with delight. Finally he got to crawl! To go here, to go there, to mix in with the other children. He was in heaven. He got to do that for fifteen minutes. Then Patsy had to leave, and the baby went back into his cage. Fifteen minutes was all that baby got.
When I heard that story, the vow welled up inside me, “I will do anything in my power to create a world where babies aren’t put in cages.” A tiny footnote, it seems, in the litany of horrors that laces civilization, but it got under my skin. And I saw how it was connected to everything happening today, with its sacrifice of humanity for efficiency, its monetization of the intimate, and its imposition of the regime of control in every realm of life. I wondered anew: “How have we arrived at a state of poverty so abject, that babies must be caged?” A baby in a cage is one small and integral strand in our totalizing Story of the World.
A world in which babies are put in cages, not to mention in which they are killed with machetes, is intolerable. A good definition of Hell is having no choice but to tolerate the intolerable. Our Story of the World gives us no way to stop it, for evil—whether in the guise of genetic self-interest or demonic powers—is an elemental force in its universe. And you are but a puny individual in an ocean of other. Therefore, our Story of the World casts us into Hell.
The woman taking care of those children was obviously not evil. She was harried, busy, and inhabiting a story in which everything she did was okay. The question of evil might come down to this: Is that woman on a continuum with the overly ambitious prosecutor, the venal politician, all the way to the sadistic torturer? Or is there a discontinuity that divides the ordinary flawed human from the truly evil? Before we jump to conclusions, we should do our best to understand what kind of “situation” might generate even the most heinous acts.
Perhaps what we see as the evil in human nature is a conditional response to circumstances so ubiquitous, and so ancient in their origin, that we cannot see them as conditional. The “othering” that allows us to harm, and the stories that contain that othering, are present to some extent even among the indigenous, and form the warp and woof of modern society. We do not really know what human nature would be in an environment embodying the Story of Interbeing. We do not know what it would be like to grow up in a society that affirmed our connectedness and cultivated its associated perceptions, feelings, thoughts, and beliefs. We do not know what the experience of life would be if we never learned self-rejection and judgment. We do not know how we would respond to conditions of abundance rather than scarcity. In Sacred Economics I wrote, “Greed is a response to the perception of scarcity.” (If everyone has plenty and the society lives in a sharing economy that rewards generosity, then greed is senseless.) Maybe we can expand that to say, “Evil is a response to the perception of separation.”
At a retreat one time, I asked the participants to walk around as separate selves. They were to see the sun as a mere ball of fusing hydrogen, the trees as just so much woody tissue; they were to hear the birdsongs as genetically programmed mating calls and territorial markers. They were to see each other as grasping, selfish egos, and the world as a competitive arena. And they were reminded that the clock was ticking. When we debriefed afterward, one of the participants said, “I just started feeling angry. I wanted to hit someone, kill something.”
Those perceptions of separation I told people to take on—those are the air we breathe as members of modern society. They are among the implicit beliefs of our culture. No wonder we are so angry. No wonder we are so violent. Immersed in such a world, who wouldn’t be?
None of this is to deny the fact that there are an awful lot of dangerous people out there, people who are so deeply conditioned to Separation that it would take a miracle to change them. Such miracles happen sometimes, but I don’t recommend relying on them in every situation. Again, if an armed intruder were threatening my children, I would probably use force to stop him, whether or not I understood that his actions came from whatever childhood trauma he had experienced. The moment of danger might not be the time to heal such trauma.
On the other hand, it might. I have found—and others have discovered in situations far more extreme than I’ve experienced—that acting from the understanding of oneness rather than from fear can have amazing effects in tense situations. Hostility begets hostility and trust begets trust. I cannot say it “works” every time, but disrupting the usual script at least allows the possibility of a different outcome. Responding to someone without fear telegraphs to them, “You are not dangerous. I know you are a good person.” It creates a new script for them to step into. They may decline that role, but at least the possibility is there.
Not too long ago, my teenage son sold an item of his for $75 to another kid in the neighborhood. The kid met him to get the item, but instead of paying Jimi the money, he grabbed it and ran off. Jimi gave chase but couldn’t catch him. Another teenager, a local gang member, saw the scene and asked why Jimi was chasing him. Jimi told him, whereupon the other teen pulled out a gun and said, “I’ll help you take care of it. I know where he lives.” Jimi said, “I’ll get back to you on that.” That evening, he told me the story and asked, “What do you think I should do, Dad?”
I thought about it for a minute and said, “Well, you are in the position of strength here and could probably get your money back by force. But if you go with the gun-wielding kid to visit the thief and get your item or money, you know how the story unfolds. The kid will want revenge, either on you or, more likely, someone weak. The cycle of violence will continue. Instead of that, why not transform the situation? You could send the gunman a text, saying, ‘You know, if he really wants the item that much, tell him to take it as my gift. Really. It’s just a thing.’” I explained further to Jimi that this approach wouldn’t work if he didn’t already have the upper hand, because then it would be seen as capitulation. But as things stood, such a message would be totally out of the ordinary.
Jimi told me he’d think about it. He didn’t do as I suggested, but let me tell you what happened. Later that week Jimi arranged a meeting with the thief. He went accompanied by his friend M., a martial arts expert. The thief brought two of his friends along as well. He said he really wanted the item and didn’t want to pay for it. His two friends started egging him and Jimi on, suggesting that they fight for it. Jimi (who is six-feet-two and has also studied martial arts) said, “Forget it, I’m not going to fight you for this petty material object. You keep it. I don’t want your money.”
The thief was taken aback. Then he said, “You know, that doesn’t feel right. I shouldn’t have taken it like that. Let me give you some money. How about $50? That’s all I can afford.”
Whereas each had held the other in a story of enmity, now there was humanity.
Pancho Ramos Stierle runs a peace house on the border between two gang territories in what is considered one of the worst neighborhoods in Oakland, California. People tell me that more than once, local individuals have entered the house with the intention to rob or kill, only to be converted into peace workers instead.
Years ago, Pancho was involved in a protest at UC Berkeley, where he was a PhD student in astrophysics. He was one of a group of students publicly fasting to protest the university’s involvement with nuclear weapons development. After nine days, the university got tired of it and had the police come and make an example of the group of hunger strikers. Police officers broke the human chain the protesters had made by interlocking their arms, and one officer lifted the slight Pancho into the air, slammed him onto the concrete, and brutally handcuffed him.
At this point, most of us would probably fall into the story and the habits of separation. We might respond with hatred, sarcasm, judgment. Lacking the physical force to overcome the police, we might try to publicly humiliate them instead. If it were me, I imagine, my lifelong indignation at the injustices of this world would be projected onto the person of this police officer. Finally, someone to blame and to hate. The worse his persecution of me, the more gratified I would feel, the more a martyr, innocent, blameless. It feels kind of good, doesn’t it, to have someone inhuman to hate without qualification. One feels absolved. And, by personifying evil, the problems of the world appear much simpler—just get rid of those awful people.
Pancho responded differently. He looked the officer in the eye and said, with love and with no attempt to make him feel guilty, “Brother, I forgive you. I am not doing this for me, I am not doing this for you. I am doing it for your children and the children of your children.” The officer was momentarily befuddled. Then Pancho asked his first name and said, “Brother, let me guess, you must like Mexican food.” [Awkward pause.] “Yes.” “Well, I know this place in San Francisco that has the best carnitas and fajitas and quesadillas, and I tell you what, when I get done with this and you get done with this, I’d like to break my fast with you. What do you say?”
Amazingly, the officer accepted the invitation. How could he not? He loosened Pancho’s handcuffs and those of the other protesters. The power of Pancho’s action came because he was standing in a different story, and standing there so firmly that he held the space of that story for other people such as the policeman to step into as well.
The Tao Te Ching says: “There is no greater misfortune than underestimating your enemy. Underestimating your enemy means thinking that he is evil. Thus you destroy your three treasures and become an enemy yourself” (verse 69, Mitchell translation). The stories of Pancho and my son illustrate this. I shudder to think of the misfortune that could have resulted from “underestimating” the enemy. Even if the policeman had been humiliated or punished, even if the thief had been crushed, the real “enemy” would have flourished. The level of hate would not have diminished in this world.
I want to be absolutely clear that for words like Pancho’s to work, they must be absolutely authentic. If you say them and don’t mean them, if you are actually saying them with the goal of showing your persecutor up as all the more villainous for having spurned your nonviolent loving-kindness, then he will probably oblige by enacting that villainy. People, especially police officers, know when they are being manipulated, and they don’t like it. The purpose of responding nonviolently isn’t to show what a good person you are. It isn’t even to be a good person. It comes, rather, from a simple understanding of the truth. Pancho meant what he said. He knew that the police officer didn’t really want to do this. He looked at him with the unshakable knowledge, “This isn’t who you really are. Your soul is too beautiful to be doing this.”
I find that witnessing or reading about incidents like this strengthens my own standing in the Story of Interbeing. Perhaps, knowing Pancho’s story, when I am in a situation that challenges my stand in the new story, I will be able to hold it more firmly too. Certainly, I encounter such challenges every day. I haven’t been beaten by police, but every day I see people doing things that invite me to “other” them, to demonize them, and to seek to punish or manipulate them. Sometimes it seems as if entire newspapers are designed to bring the reader into that mindset. They invite us into a world of inexcusable, awful people, and predispose us to act accordingly in our social relationships.
A few weeks ago I was speaking in England about the changing mythology of our culture. In describing the scientific dimension of that shift, I listed not only fairly palatable paradigm shifts such as horizontal gene transfer and ecological interdependency, but also more controversial examples like morphic fields and water memory. One of the audience (this was a small room) rolled his eyes and snorted, “Oh come on!” The emotion behind his protest was palpable, and I felt defensive. What should I do? From the mentality of force, my response would be to try to overcome this man, and I must confess that that is how I began. I spoke of my acquaintance with Rustum Roy, one of the twentieth century’s greatest scientists, near-universally revered by materials scientists as the father of that field, who elucidated mechanisms for the nanostructuring and microstructuring of water. I was about to continue with a scientific case for water memory that would cite the research of Gerald Pollack of the University of Washington, the character assassination campaign against Jacques Benveniste, and so on, when I noticed the sullen expression on my challenger’s face. Obviously, his rejection of water memory was ideological, not based on any reading, and thus unprepared he would have no chance to defeat me in a debate. He would only be humiliated. I would win, but so what? Would the man change his mind? Probably not. He would probably conclude that I was presenting a biased case, and he would go home and read the entry for water memory on skepdic.com. If anything, his belief would harden.
Not wanting to be an agent of humiliation, I took a different tack. I observed to the audience that there is a lot of emotional energy behind this question. Why? Obviously, I said, we are not facing a mere intellectual disagreement. Where is the emotion coming from? It could be, sir, that you deeply care about this planet and see fantastical beliefs as a distraction from the necessary, practical work that we need to do. It could be because you see the damage that ignorance of science has done in areas like climate change. It could be because marvelous possibilities strike us with fear, because we live in a civilization where the marvelous possibility of human life has been systematically betrayed by our systems of education, parenting, religion, economics, and law. It could be because we fear the dissolution of our worldviews that major paradigm shifts entail.
The man was not mollified; before too much longer, he got up and left. But several people afterward told me that that was the most powerful moment of the afternoon. Who knows, perhaps the experience of being met and not humiliated added another featherweight of love to this man’s inventory of experiences.
The best victory, says Sun Tzu, is the one in which the losers don’t realize they have lost. In the old story, we overcome evil and leave our enemies in the dust, wailing and gnashing their teeth. No more. Everyone is coming along for this ride. In the new story, we understand that everyone left behind impoverishes the destination. We see each human being as the possessor of a unique lens upon the world. We wonder, “What truth has this man been able to see from his perspective, that is invisible from mine?” We know that there must be something; that indeed, each of us occupies a different place in the matrix of all being precisely in order to contribute a unique experience to our evolving totality.
I do not know if Pancho’s encounter with the policeman directly changed that man’s life. I do know that each experience of love, along with each experience of hate, is written into our inner situation. Each experience of love nudges us toward the Story of Interbeing, because it only fits into that story and defies the logic of Separation.
I think these stories make it clear that acting from interbeing does not equate to being a doormat, being passive, or allowing violence to happen. It certainly isn’t the same as ignoring what goes on in the world. Sometimes I get criticisms quite the opposite of the one that I’m naive, along the lines of “Charles, don’t you understand? It’s all good. We’re all one. All these ‘bad’ things are happening for our growth. Let’s focus on our blessings and steer clear of negativity. You criticize technology, but look—the internet allows me to communicate with my son in China. Everything is unfolding perfectly.” I disagree with this viewpoint, or rather, I think it represents a partial understanding of a metaphysical principle. Donning rose-colored lenses in willful ignorance of the hurting and ugliness of the world is like paving over a toxic waste dump and hoping it goes away. On a certain level, it is true that “It’s all good”—but that includes our perception that something is terribly wrong. It is that perception, and the fire it kindles within us to create a more beautiful world, that makes “It’s all good” come true. The perfection of the unfolding encompasses the imperfection. Resisting “negativity” is itself a form of negativity, in that it affirms that doubt, fear, etc., are indeed negative. But they have an important role, just like everything else. To deny that, to deny our fear and pain, would indeed be to ignore the dark side. Acting from interbeing doesn’t deny a single fact or experience presented us. It does require shedding our customary interpretation of those experiences. That can be difficult, because those interpretations are not only culturally reinforced in ways both subtle and powerful, they are also a kind of cover for the deep wounds of Separation that most of us carry.
Let me say that again. Hate and the Story of Evil are a cover for the wound of Separation. We need to peel away that cover and give that wound attention, so that it can heal. Otherwise, we will continue to act from Separation ourselves, and we will create more of it, unwittingly, through all we do. Again, can you peer into the abyss that the more horrific atrocities open up, and not plunge into hate? Can you be present to the gaping, painful wound those stories reveal? Can you let it hurt, and let it hurt, and know that having integrated that hurting, you will act with a wisdom, clarity, and effectiveness far surpassing the smiting of enemies?
I was about to say that to act from interbeing, far from being a cowardly capitulation to evil, requires considerable courage. But then I realized that to put it like that hooks into a thought form of separation. It would imply that those who are not doing this lack courage, and that you should cultivate courage in order to act from love. Actually, what is happening is that our immersion in the Story of Interbeing generates courage.
Granted, there may be situations in which no nonviolent means suffice, but habituated as we are to the concept of evil, the paradigm of force, and the habit of othering, we tend to group nearly every situation into this category. The violence may be very subtle, dressed for example in concepts like “holding them to account,” which is usually code for shaming, humiliation, and retribution. Rarely do we have the imagination, courage, or skill to act from a felt understanding of the humanity of the aggressor, or of the ingrate, or of the fool. That words like ingrate, fool, idiot, liar, crank, apologist, imperialist, racist, and so on even exist already invites us into the dispositionist belief that people are these things. Separation is built in to our very language. Can you see now the depth of the revolution in human beingness that we are undertaking? Can you see how powerfully our context conditions us to see evil as a fact of the world?
Even if the reader is not convinced that there is no such thing as elemental, essential evil, it should at least be clear that most of the time, what we ascribe to evil actually comes from situation. Even if the reader still thinks there is a “discontinuity that divides the ordinary flawed human from the truly evil,” it is clear that we often categorize the former as the latter. That is extremely important, because whereas evil can be overcome only by superior force, anything else can be changed by changing the situation, the totality of the inner and outer circumstances. In large part, these circumstances consist of layer upon layer of story, going all the way down to our personal and cultural Story of Self.
This is the level we must work at if we are to create a different kind of society. We must become the storytellers of a new world. We tell the story not only with words, but with the actions that spring from that story. Each such action shows all who witness it that there is another world out there, another way of seeing and being, and that you are not crazy for thinking it is there.
Every act of generosity is an invitation into generosity. Every act of courage is an invitation into courage. Every act of selflessness is an invitation into selflessness. Every act of healing is an invitation into healing. I am sure you have felt this invitation upon witnessing such acts.
I once read a news story about a train wreck in Peru. The travelers and tourists were stranded in the mountainous area in winter, without food or heat. Many might have died that night, if it weren’t for the local villagers who came with food and blankets to keep them warm. These were poor villagers, and they were giving their only blankets.
I remember when I read that story how petty my own insecurity seemed, how tight my heart, and how tiny my generosity. I felt a kind of opening. If those indigent villagers can give their last blankets, then surely I needn’t be so concerned about my financial future. I can give. It will be okay.
One way to interpret this story is to conclude that obviously, those seemingly indigent villagers are much wealthier than I am. Let’s try a new definition of wealth: “the ease and freedom to be generous.” Perhaps these villagers have what we, in pursuit of money and its illusory security, are seeking to attain. For one thing, they are in community, and know that they will be taken care of by those around them. That is not so true in a money economy like ours. Second, they have a deep connection to the land and a sense of belonging. Through their relationships, they know who they are. That is a kind of wealth that no amount of money can replace. We moderns, the disconnected, have a lot of rebuilding to do. Those like those villagers, and anyone living from interbeing, remind us of our potential wealth and the ground truth of interbeing. Their generosity enriches us merely through witnessing it.
All of us have at one time or another been fortunate enough to witness generosity and to feel how it opens us. Nonetheless, if you are like me you also harbor a voice that says, “But what if it isn’t okay? What if I give, and just get taken advantage of? What if I give, and have nothing left, and no one takes care of me?” Underneath these plaintive questions is another, even more profound: “What if I am alone in the universe?” This is the primal fear of the separate self. In its logic, giving is insane. If I and the world are one, then what I do to the world, I do to myself—generosity is natural. But if I am separate from the world, there is no guarantee that anything I do will come back to me. I have to contrive it, I have to engineer an avenue of return, an assurance. If I give, I have to leverage some form of influence over the receiver, legal or emotional, to ensure I get paid back. At least I have to make sure other people see my generosity, so that they are impressed and I get a social return. You will recognize that this whole mindset is contrary to the spirit of the gift.
These questions “What if no one takes care of me? What if it’s not okay? What if I’m alone in the universe?” also underlie concerns that a philosophy of oneness or interbeing ignores the “dark side.” When someone tries to get me to admit the existence of evil, they are speaking from something painful. I know it well, because it is in me too. It is a feeling of indignation, frustration, and helplessness. There is an implacable, malevolent Other out there, threaded through the entire universe, making it always a bit foolish to trust, foolish to give, and never quite safe to love. Of course, we live in a world where that has often been our experience. No wonder we take it as a fundamental attribute of reality, and see any denial of it as dangerously naive. But really what is happening is that we are projecting our experience onto reality, and then, based on the projection we see, reifying it still further by acting within its logic.
Evil is not only a response to the perception of separation, it is also its product. How do we deal with this implacable, malevolent Evil? Because force is the only language it understands, we are compelled to join it in force; as the Orwell dialogue I quote earlier shows, we become evil too. Human beings have been committing horrors for thousands of years in the name of conquering evil. The identity of evil keeps changing—the Turks! the Infidels! the bankers! the French! the Jews! the bourgeoisie! the terrorists!—but that mindset remains the same. As does the solution: force. As does the result: more evil. Must we forever battle the image of our own delusion? We see the results all over our scarred planet. A saying goes, “The greatest tool of the Devil is the belief that there is no Devil.” Perhaps the opposite is true: “The greatest tool of Evil is the idea there is such a thing as Evil.”
Take a while to appreciate the subtlety of that paradox. It does not say, “Evil does not exist.” It is essentially saying that evil is a story. Does that mean it isn’t real? No. Evil is as real as a poacher stripping the tusks from an elephant, Monsanto marketing GMO seeds to Indian peasants, the government ordering drone strikes on funeral processions. These are the tip of the iceberg, tiny tremors amid the convulsions wracking our planet.
Evil is real—no less real than any other story. What are some other stories? America is a story, money is a story, even the self is a story. What could be more real than your self? Yet even the self can be realized as an illusory construct when, through grace or practice, we are freed from its story. The point is not that we should treat evil as unreal. It is that we must address it on the level of story rather than accept its own invisible premises and logic. If we do the latter, we become its creature. If we address it on the level of story, and deconstruct through words and actions the mythology it lives in, then we win without defeating. The next chapters address working on the level of story—disrupting the old and telling the new—in more detail.
We have entertained a number of paradoxes: that the reason “It’s all good” is that we are realizing it is all terribly wrong; that the Devil’s greatest weapon is the notion that there is such a thing as the Devil; that evil comes from the perception of evil. In order to tie up a remaining loose thread in this chapter’s ontology of evil, I’m afraid I will have to pile on one more paradox. It is not only evil that is both real and a story; “real” is both real and a story as well. Our use of the word real encodes assumptions of an objective universe that, as we saw in the chapter “Science,” are highly questionable. We cannot even say, “Reality is not real,” because to do so smuggles in an objective backdrop in which reality either is, or is not, real. I could ask, “What if reality is real for you and not for me?” but even then, the word “is” smuggles in the same thing. That said, I would like you for a moment to drop your habit of objectivism and consider whether it might be possible for evil to exist in the Story of Separation, and for it not to exist in the Story of Interbeing. I don’t mean that one story countenances it and one does not. I mean that in transitioning between stories, we transition between realities. How does one make that transition? That’s what this whole book is about.
Questioning the absolute division between subject and object leads one to ponder what the experience of evil reveals in oneself, as well as what state of being attracts one to believe or disbelieve in absolute evil. Have you ever had a personal encounter with an implacable, malevolent power, either in human form or in an altered state of consciousness? If you have, you know the overwhelmingly intense feelings of impotent rage, grief, and fear the experience provokes. One steps into the archetype of the Victim, powerless, utterly at the mercy of a merciless force. Until one has had this experience, it is impossible to see that such a state is latent inside each of us. The experience is a vehicle of self-discovery, conveying one to a very dark, inaccessible corner of being. As such it is a kind of medicine, a harsh medicine to be sure, but perhaps necessary to bring to the light of awareness, and therefore of healing, a primal wound. I would be curious to know what people who have been victimized by psychopaths or other malevolent powers have in common. Are they just random victims, or is there something inside of them that attracts the experience?
Those who do what they call shamanic work might ask the same question about the “entities” that attach themselves to people. Are these arbitrary, predatory forces, like the impersonal forces of nature, that visit themselves upon the unlucky? Or is there an energetic hole, a missing part, a wound that perfectly complements the configuration of the entity that attaches itself? In that case, perhaps the entity is performing a service, merging with the host into a symbiotic whole. One might ask, is the entity really a separate entity at all, or could it be an unintegrated part of the psyche? Is there even a meaningful difference between those two categories? What is a self, anyway? If we are interbeings—the sum total of our relationships—then the existence of an alien, othered “evil” is highly problematic.
The idea that evil is part of a larger alchemical dance vastly complicates the usual narrative of fighting on the side of good to conquer evil. We might instead see the evil we encounter as the externalized image of something hidden within ourselves. In contrast, the concept of absolute, merciless evil is closely analogous to the impersonal, merciless forces of the Newtonian universe, which visit destruction randomly upon us. It is also analogous to the ruthlessly competing gene-controlled robots of Darwinian natural selection. Both of these are key pillars of the old story. Does it not stand to reason that evil is as well?
Dreams, psychedelic experiences, and a few in waking consciousness have shown me that each time I enter a confrontation with a malevolent force, there has been something in me that complemented it. In the case of actual human beings, I was pulled in two directions: toward an interpretation of the other person in which he or she was wholly evil, and an interpretation in which his or her appalling behavior had a more innocent explanation, or perhaps an explanation that encompassed my own culpability. Despite my best efforts, it was never possible to know for sure. It wasn’t a matter of mere intellectual curiosity. Do I take preemptive measures? Do I treat that person as an implacable enemy? Do I interpret a seemingly conciliatory move as a mere ploy? Is my feeling of shared responsibility a leverage point for the perpetrator, implying that I should adopt a protective self-righteousness? How do I know for sure?
How to answer these questions is a matter of great planetary importance, for they are the same ones that the Palestinians and the Israelis, the Sunnis and the Shiites, the Hindus and the Muslims, must answer to decide between war and peace. I find that usually, it is impossible to discover incontrovertible evidence that can decide these questions, as if there were an objective fact of the matter to ascertain. Rather, it often seems that whatever answer one chooses becomes true. Before the choice is made, it is as if the persecutor were in a quantum superposition of states. Each story that we consider has a role for the other person. By choosing the story, we choose their role.
Now for a few more complications. For one, what about situations in which it is naive and counterproductive to continue giving the violator the benefit of the doubt, as in domestic abuse situations, or in dealing with an addict? Second, what about situations in which the other party does not accept the invitation into a peaceful role—what if they refuse to join the Story of Interbeing? Third, it is all well and good to say that people with a certain psychology draw to themselves experiences of being persecuted or abused, and that the encounter with evil is part of a developmental process, but it seems callous and arrogant indeed to say that about toddlers abused by their parents, or entire populations subjected to genocide.
I mention these mostly to assure the reader that I have not overlooked the obvious. I will not in these pages attempt a thorough answer to these and other points; I’ll just point toward how they might be addressed and leave the rest to the reader. First, it is important to distinguish between refusing a story of “he is evil” and accepting the other person’s story. I am not talking about capitulation here. It is certainly possible to stand in a Story of Interbeing and lovingly, compassionately refuse to allow the alcoholic to borrow your car, or the wife-beater to have another chance.
As for the second point, it is certainly possible that even if you hold open the invitation into the new story as strongly as Gandhi, the other party will refuse to step into it. In that case, other circumstances will arise that eject them from your world. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword, and we needn’t take it upon ourselves to be the killer. Lao Tzu warns, “There are always executioners. If you take over their function, it is like trying to replace the master woodcarver—you will probably cut your hand.” And the Bible says, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord” (i.e., vengeance is not yours, only God’s).
Again, I am not saying there is never a time to fight. All things have their place in this world: the buck struggles against the wolf, and sometimes he gets away. It is just that, because of our ideology, we apply the mentality of fighting, struggling, and warfare far beyond its proper domain. I will not attempt to delineate principles that distinguish when fighting is “justified”; to decide on principle is part of the old story, and besides, principles are easy to twist into justifications for nearly any atrocity. I will just say that if fighting is accompanied by hate or self-pity, it is probably outside its proper domain.
The third point opens up a hoary theological question about the purpose of evil and of suffering in our world. Why do the innocent suffer? Here is a paragraph from a long discussion of this question in “Eulogy and Redemption” in The Ascent of Humanity. You can read the whole section (and the whole book) online.
We often think of misfortune as some kind of punishment for past evil, a theme that runs through religious thought both East and West. In the East it is the idea that present suffering represents the negative karma generated through past misdeeds; in the West we have the image of Yahweh striking down the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their sins, threatening Nineveh for its “wickedness.” However, the self-evident fact that it is often the innocent who suffer the most demands all kinds of theological contortions, from past lives to Original Sin, from future rebirth to Heaven and Hell. How else to explain the sweet, innocent babies in the children’s cancer wards? If we are not to resort to blind, pitiless, purposeless chance, we need another explanation for the innocence of our victims. Perhaps they are great souls, meeting the huge necessity for innocent victims that our civilization has wrought. “I will go,” they say. “I am big enough. I am ready for this experience.”
Humanity has been on a journey of Separation for thousands of years, and every crevice of that territory must be explored. The perpetrators and the victims of all we call evil have explored the furthest reaches of Separation. One might even define evil as separation: the total othering of a person, a nation, or nature, as well as the natural consequence of being cast into an alien universe separate from oneself. Recall the workshop exercise: “I wanted to kill something.” Significant it is that the label “evil” is itself a profound form of othering. That is another way to see that the concept of evil is part and parcel of the phenomenon of evil.
Thankfully, having explored the extremities of the territory of Separation, we now have the possibility of embarking on the return journey. If evil is part of your Story of the World, either through direct experience or as a fundamental ontological category, you might want to explore how that story serves you and what is the hurting that draws you to it. Because again, evidence and logic will not resolve whether evil is real. I have made extensive arguments drawing from situationist psychology, from psychopathy, from metaphysics, and from numerous anecdotes, but one could probably rebut each point, and I could rebut the rebuttals ad infinitum. How will you choose your story? How will you influence how others choose theirs? I leave you with the tale of Christian Bethelson as a final example of the redemption of evil and the disruption of stories.
My friend Cynthia Jurs met Christian Bethelson while she was doing peace work in Liberia, which had suffered a horrendous civil war in the 1990s. A rebel leader known by the nom de guerre of General Leopard, Bethelson was infamous in a milieu of massacre, child soldiery, and torture. If any human being is evil, it would have been him; he was, in his words, a man with “no conscience.” Eventually the war ended, and with it Bethelson’s livelihood: he had no skill other than killing. He decided to go to the nearest war, in Ivory Coast, where there might be demand for his gruesome services. On the way his car got stuck in the mud. Who would have guessed that another car would be stuck in the mud on the same stretch of road at the same time, and that that car would be bearing members of a peace group called the Everyday Gandhis? Intrigued by their conversation, he announced himself as a former rebel general. He thought they would vilify him, maybe even beat him, but to his astonishment the group gathered around him, hugged him, told him they loved him. He decided to join them and dedicate his life to peace.
Let us hold out for no less a miracle planetwide. Let us accept the invitation that it offers us into a larger sense of the possible.
28. See Parabola magazine, “If You Want to Be a Rebel, Be Kind,” for a more complete account of this event.
29. Pancho asks that I clarify that the lunch never ended up happening.
30. I should mention that this passage is extremely ambiguous. Many translators choose to interpret “underestimating the enemy” in the conventional way. Mitchell, drawing on a subtle, intuitive, and in my view accurate understanding of the sense of the text, added in the sentence explaining that underestimating means thinking your enemy is evil. That sentence is not in the original, but is implicit in the next line, which says that when armies clash, the compassionate or empathetic win.
31. Some therefore advocate abolishing all humiliating labels from our speech. If we replace “narcissist” with “person with narcissistic tendencies” and “addict” with “person with an addiction” and “liar” with “person with a habit of dishonesty,” they think, we might uphold through our use of language the dignity of all people, separating the behavior from the actual person. Even “hero,” they might say, should be replaced with “person with heroic accomplishments” in order not to imply that those not so labeled are unheroic. I tend to get annoyed with crusaders for linguistic correctness—excuse me, I mean people who might be interpreted as having crusading tendencies—for a couple reasons. First, it panders to a victim mentality and encourages us to be easily offended. Second, very quickly the new terms take on the old pejorative or disparaging sense, as exemplified by the evolution from moron to retard to mentally handicapped to mentally disabled to whatever the new locution may be. People can dress vicious intent in all the right words. On a deeper level, we can say all the right things while doing nothing.