On the Nature of Evil
This week I watched a film in which rebel troops in Sierre Leone teach 8 year-olds to kill and to terrorize, using heroin and hatred to master their minds. Right now there are over 35,000 child soldiers on active duty in conflict zones, made into mercenaries and murderers whilst still babies. And i thought – never mind the greedy bankers and selfish politicians – surely if anything is evil, this really is it?
Its a vital question for all of us, as evil thoughts lurks in most of our minds too. And, if we are really honest, then we have to admit that (every now and again) we have the deep-seated concern that in someway, somehow, we are bad too. Guilt, shame and regret hamper so many people’s lives. So what really is evil? And – way more importantly – how do we deal with it in other people and within ourselves?
The pioneering psychiatrist Carl Jung was very clear about ‘the dark side’. He stated that we all – categorically – have what he called a ‘Shadow’, but this is not to be mistakenly called evil. In fact, he believed quite the opposite is true: that our long-term happiness is based upon us willingly going into these ‘dark materials’ and shining the light of Truth upon them. In my practice and coaching work I have seen time and time again that when we have the courage to grapple with our darkness (our anger, rage, betrayals, shame, humiliation, violence, pessimism etc.) in absolute unflinching truth, we can turn anything, no matter how dark, into something good, virtuous and creative.
Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions. Carl G. Jung
The irony is, the more we become influential and honorable leaders in our own lives (and in the world), through the process of turning our pain into new potential, the more we access the deepest, darkest, dankness recesses of our Shadow. Goethe said “where there is much light, the shadow is deep.” The more ‘realized’ we become, the more we notice with clarity our potential to have the darkest of thoughts. But this can actually help us change the world by being more understanding, and less dictatorial and judgemental.
If we get caught in the trap of blaming and judging ourselves, then we enter a cycle of shame and revenge. But if we explore our Shadow with a profound sense of curiosity and compassion, it will reveal to us its mysteries and help to set us free. As in the film ‘
I Heart Huckabees’, we can become existential detectives, shining a light on the shadows deep in our traumatized minds, in order to gain access to all our creative talents.
Understanding some depth psychology here is invaluable to our everyday ability to cope with the darkest of realities;
When we enter the world as infants, things soon start to happen around us which we feel fearful of: Mum screams at us in rage, Dad leaves us for a moment in a room with stranger, or sadly far worse. As these things occur we start to develop defence mechanisms to protect ourselves from experiencing that fear or trauma again. And for many years these work very well for us. Our fear of being burnt by another hot oven leads us to avoid cooking. Our fear of being abandoned again means that we are very careful about who we choose as our childhood friends.
The problem is, as we grow older, we end up with a whole suite of defence mechanisms that are protecting us from events that no longer occur, and – even if they did – as adults we would be able to deal with them maturely. The very things that were protecting us are now damaging us, our future happiness and the wellbeing of those who have to work and play with us. It is these defence mechanisms that have us fail to set up our own business; inexplicably break off with a lover; cheat on our spouse; or abuse and attack other people for their beliefs, ideas and deeds.
Defence mechanisms are the root cause of the behaviours that people define as Evil when viewed through the lens of blame and judgement.
So they really are quite important.
Here is a useful metaphor to understand how this works.
As an infant our consciousness is a wide-open space – expansive, free, untrammelled by fear or blame. We see without distortions and discriminations. We experience the deep connectiveness of belonging; we can breathe easy in the safety and security of unconditional parental love. We can see all the way to the horizon, and can skip and play as we wander around, following the path of our own curiosity.
But this sense of spaciousness is not destined to last. Every time we feel really threatened we erect a wall around our mental space in order to keep the dangers away from us. We go on erecting wall after wall, attempting valiantly to protect ourselves from the realities of human existence. But after a while we realise that, as adults, we are now living our everyday lives in a fraction of the space we had before. Gone is the spaciousness, the feeling of being footloose, without a worry or restriction in the world. Now all those walls are now keeping us – our soul, our potential – in. And it hurts. We can drink or consume the pain, frustration and claustrophobia away. Or we can start the long, slow journey – replete with numerous painful setbacks – of dissolving the bricks and mortar of our fear in the warm glow of our human interdependence, compassionate truth, and the reality of unconditional love. Once the fear recedes, all our psychological energy can now be spent on creativity, on honing our talents, on achieving our potential for greatness – rather than having it tied up in repressing our dark materials from the warm light of day.
But this is far more important than just the individual’s happiness. As usual, whenever there is a deep psychological insight there is also a vital societal equivalent.
Walls are erected, by governments, businesses and communities, in our social and political space to manage our collective fears and keep the threats out. The walls of prisons, mad houses, hospitals, international borders and even car parks are all designed to manage uncertainty and the threats from within and without.
We like to keep our ‘evil’ brethren in jail, and our mad sisters in the nut house. It helps us sleep better at night.
French philosopher Michel Foucault exposed these institutions as part of the power / knowledge complex – where our desire for power drives us to use knowledge to cut people, society, communities up using real and metaphorical walls. As the powerful watch over us – ostensibly to safeguard our best interests (ie protect us from our worst fears) – their super-vision ends up imprisoning us and curtailing our freedom. The violence, crime waves, the drug ‘problem’, alcoholism, obesity, child abuse etc.) also continue.
To bring political and psychological together, in Foucault’s words;
“The strategic adversary is fascism… the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behavior, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”
It is this thirst for domination – the desire to manage and control other people and our environment in case they threaten or damage us – which is at the heart of ‘Evil’ (and of capitalism, excessive wealth, exploitation, slavery and most communal garden consumer advertising).
The only cure – whether for the individual or the social – is to relentlessly observe our fear, and the defence mechanisms that are triggered a hundred times as day by it, and unpick this complex web with compassion (the compassion that comes from knowing our shared potential for dark, shadowy behaviours) and with a fearlessness that acknowledges our shared capacity to hurt, honestly and openly. This is what the justly legendary Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have done so ably in South Africa, Rwanda and now Sierre Leonee itself. Only with truth and compassion can so we free ourselves from our own ‘mind forg’d manacles’ (in the words William Blake) and dissolve away the ‘evil’ (the desire to protect, dominate, control) in all our hearts. And this is how we can truly change the conversation and move it forwards… never by launching another ‘war’ on terrorism / drugs / crime / obesity* (delete as appropriate).
The ability of our society as a whole to do this – to carry out a constant archeology of its fear-driven and pathological activities and bring to light the dark forces (brewing and bubbling more than ever in these uncertain times) – determines whether it can guard against the dangers of emotional and political Fascism. The only alternative is endless cycles of conflict, repression, abuse, shame, revenge and – perhaps worst of all – business as usual… where our brands, priests and the media and political elite continue to profit from the myth that there is something – at heart – wrong with us all.
There isn’t. There is only a lot of fear… and the ignorance and cowardice that feeds it. The only answer is to courageously and continuously dive into the shadows, with our trusty torch of truth and compassion, and illuminate the fears away. The result…? A life – and society – filled with integrity, humility and access to all its creative potential.