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Doing the Impossible: Balancing Good and Evil
Early in my youth I became fascinated by the prospect of actually doing what science said was impossible to do. I learned from both the empirical and theoretical versions of mathematics that there are an infinite number of points between any point A and any point B no matter how long or short the actual distance between the two. A proof of this is the hypothetical experiment that if I stand any distance from a wall and go only half the distance to it with each step, I should never actually get to the wall. Mathematically, this experiment is possible to conduct; physically, it cannot be done. However, we are all in the habit of “touching walls” without any thought about how to do it or expending any effort in accomplishing this familiar feat.
I can actually touch the wall at any time I choose no matter what distance I am from it when I begin my approach toward it. The math says I cannot traverse infinity because infinity has no beginning or ending. However, the distance I cover between myself (A) and the wall (B), comprising an infinite number of points, indicates that what is finite can include what is infinite and that the infinite can be experienced within the finite. In other words, the two concepts, as commonly assumed, are not mutually exclusive. Each exists only in relationship to and as an integral part of the other.
Life is a Balancing Act
The human being, just as a coin, can only exist at the nexus of opposites. Heads and tails comprise the coin and not merely one or the other. The one cannot exist without the other. Everything physical as well as metaphysical is manifested and experienced as a combination in equal degree of opposing forces. On the cellular level, for example, atoms are composed of a central nucleus surrounded by electrons and positrons, which are elementary particles that have the same mass but opposite electrical charges. These particles counterbalance each other and identify the atom as a specific entity distinct from all other matter. Gravity, no matter how scientifically explained, is nothing more than the unseen force that pulls against that which pulls against it. The magnetic force is simply the equilibrium between positive and negative poles that are aligned exactly opposite each other.
“Who Knows What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men?”
The primary set of opposites that forms the human soul is good and evil. This dialectic describes the essence of human existence. Evil without the counterbalancing good causes the soul to be ill formed resulting in narcissism and destructive behavior toward one’s self and others.
You cannot live in reverse, which is exactly what evil is – a drive toward death that seeks to reverse the natural impetus toward life. Interestingly enough, the English language just happens to provide what I think is an ideal illustration of the true definition of evil: ‘evil’ is ‘live’ spelled backward. And perhaps the ultimate description of “devil” is that he once “lived” but now exists devoid of any life.
This is the definition of evil I find most meaningful when dealing with human nature. Evil arises from the universal human propensity toward selfishness. It is the cause of all war and disharmony throughout human history. It focuses on self-preservation at the expense of others. When your internal balance tilts toward evil, you begin to set yourself up as a god with dominion over everything in your universe. The lives of other creatures, especially other human beings, become insignificant and meaningless except as they play a role in serving to preserve your life and add to your personal increase. The resulting attitude and behavior toward creation sets the stage for conflict, struggle and revolt.
It is one of the mysterious ironies of humanity that when you focus exclusively on the preservation of your own life you actually wind up behaving in ways that gradually and imperceptibly destroy what you think you’re protecting. Evil seeks to distract and eventually defeat the drive toward increasing life for all living things now and in the future by posing as intense interest in the defense of a single life.
Evil is manifested as much in a malevolent attitude toward life as it is in any wicked transgression or overt malfeasance. For example, do you know people who complain often about the circumstances and events in their lives, who feel constantly put upon by hardships, both real and imagined? They see their lives being manipulated by nefarious forces determined to make them miserable by thwarting their every dream and effort to improve their lives. Mark Twain’s comment, “I’ve experienced a great many calamities in my life; most of them never happened,” applies to these people in that they make their lives unduly difficult because that’s what they expect life to be. It is something to be trudged through, struggled against and tediously endured with stoic resignation. When these people die, they’re glad it’s all over. This attitude is a manifestation of evil because it is antithetical to life. Evil only sees dearth and not abundance. It seeks death, not life.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to get to know and love a young man who taught me much about life. Scott had inherited a terrible gene from his parents that caused his father and two brothers to die from a painful form of cancer before they had reached the age of 30. He was given a bit more time – he died at 32. You would be justified in calling this fate a manifestation of evil.
Although he would have been a wonderful father and wanted desperately to have a child he and his wife decided not to have children because they didn’t want to take the chance of passing on his death gene to yet another generation. It was a courageous act of self-denial. I never heard Scott complain about the pain or the apparent injustice of his situation. In fact, he would frequently say with a big grin, “I’m a happy camper!” Scott loved life and he wanted more than he knew he was to have. Nevertheless, he lived in joy and gratefulness and balanced the evil of his circumstances with the goodness of his attitude. I believe this attitude toward life prepared him to receive more of it after he died.
The Good Isn’t Any Better
Conversely, good without the tempering of its opposite results in a soul that Abraham Lincoln whimsically described: “It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.” Of course, vices and virtues are relative terms and I don’t think Lincoln was speaking of anything other than human idiosyncrasies and certainly not of unmitigated evil. However, without a definitive respect for the evil that comprises part of one’s self, life becomes insipid, dull, disheartened, despairing, passionless and stunted in its significance. There’s a healthy tension between good and evil that creates and sustains the human soul that, if pulled out of the nexus even slightly in either direction, causes deformation of character, distorted thinking and aberrant behavior.
You might think that it would be best for humanity and the world if the good within us were to completely overcome the evil within us. Ironically, when evil is omitted from the human equation life can actually manifest the evil it seeks to overcome or deny. Those who are horrified by the darkness they sense within them often will take great pains to exclude it from their consciousness thereby hoping to eradicate its existence altogether. Seeking to deal with evil by simply pretending that it doesn’t exist actually creates the very circumstances out of which the dark side can better and more easily emerge into the world through our own actions.
Doug Hall, in his intriguing book, “The Reality of the Gospel and the Unreality of the Church,” identifies the circumstances that could give rise to further evil in the world. He sees that human societies subconsciously seek to repress “the other side of the coin” of human existence. By means of their entertainment, social structures, media and often their religions they create alternate worlds in which there is only good, right, purity, brightness and nobility. He cites an advertisement found in the New York Times several decades ago inviting people to the “unreal” world of Disney World in Orlando, Florida. It is written as if a father were writing to a relative or friends back home in the “real” world.
“One of the biggest, events of the day was about to happen. A parade. Leading the procession were Mickey and Minnie Mouse, followed by several marching bands and dozens of other famous Disney characters . . .
“Our children sat in amazement as President Lincoln got out of his chair. There before us was President Lincoln, as big as Life, speaking of the things that make countries great.
As he sat down again, the star-filled sky behind him began to turn red. White clouds gathered and stretched across in bands, leaving a patch of blue at the upper left portion of the sky . . .
“After the Hall of Presidents, the children wanted to see Fort Wilderness where we got another glimpse of our great heritage. We met and talked with a man there whose name was Del Rosengrant. A real blacksmith . . .
“We left civilization for a while after that and traveled on four famous rivers of the world. The captain of our jungle boat safely guided us past hungry hippos, trumpeting elephants and spear-clutching headhunters. The kids really got a kick out of it and laughed aloud as my wife and I ducked from one of the elephants that threatened to squirt water at us.
“Everyone who worked at Walt Disney World always seemed to be having as much fun as the visitors. And of course the grown-ups were all having as much fun as the children.
Walt Disney World was the kind of vacation our family will never forget. There was so much to see and experience. Together.
“And then comes the punch line, printed in bold capital letters so it won’t be missed by all the anxious people:
‘HOW YOUR CHILDREN SEE THE WORLD DEPENDS ON WHAT YOU SHOW THEM.'”
Hall offers his interpretation of the contrast between the sanitized “clean” world of Disney and the polluted “dirty” world of real life filled with fear and filth and, at the same time, with gallant self-sacrifice and inspiring morality. He understands well that the means to deal effectively with the dichotomy at the heart of life are learned or not learned in childhood.
“I remembered that I had shown my children Buchenwald. I also remembered that as we sat outside the Ploetzensee Memorial in Berlin, while I told my young son about the courageous people who had been hanged there for resisting the Nazis, he began to cry and accused me: ‘Daddy, you tell me the most terrible things!’
“There are terrible things, and there will be. And when a people determines to protect itself and its children from them, it is quite probable that that people will become the cause of terrible things.”
We are fooling ourselves when we believe we are doing good by sanitizing or ignoring altogether the evil within us. It is as difficult to do as minting a coin with only one side or imagining a stick with only one end.
This is What We’re Made Of
So this is what we’re made of: good and evil, however they are defined. In order to be fully human and alive, our task is not to run away from the dark side or to help our good overcome our evil. Rather, we are to keep them in balance, just as each atom exists only by the perfect pairing of the negative and positive particles that surround it. The well-lived and effective life of significance is the one that maintains and appreciates the natural balance between good and evil without allowing one to gain prominence over the other for very long.
There are events, initiated by others or ourselves, that will cause us to be so repulsed by evil that we seek to destroy any vestiges of it we sense within ourselves and others. There are also events that seem to compel us, as the once good boy Darth Vader of the Star Wars film sagas would say, to “turn to the dark side,” giving in to the path of least resistance by giving up our self-discipline to maintain personal balance. The call to each soul is to persevere and persistently attempt to restore the balance between good and evil whenever it is skewed by the events in our lives or the poor choices we make.
“Do Not Give Up”
I was walking beside a beautiful stream recently in Independence, Missouri when I spotted these words that had been spray painted on a bridge abutment: “Do Not Give Up.” I thought it interested that such sentiment would be written in a place usually crammed with juvenile expressions of love and lament and the menacing phrases and characters from gangs of anti-social youths. I’m sure it was meant to encourage walkers and runners along the path to continue in their efforts to improve their health and endurance. But it also reminded me that this motto is exactly what we all need to live by every day in all our activities and undertakings. Do not give up when it appears that it would be easier to do so. Do not give up when it seems that everything and everybody around you is strongly suggesting or even threatening you to do so. Do not give up in the face of seemingly insurmountable or “impossible” obstacles. Do not give up trying to balance your life even when something happens that lures you into thinking you’ve banished completely the evil within you or that moves you to want to simply give in to it.
What Does A Balanced Soul Look Like?
We’ve seen the disruptions and distortions that can occur in life when the balance is disturbed – in either direction. What happens when your soul is in balance? You experience what psychologists call “flow,” where everything falls into the proper place, both mentally and physically. You experience creative energy and clarity of thought and direction that results in innovation and joy. Anything “new” stemming from human initiative arises out of remaining faithful to and faithfully in the tension between good and evil. This tension is truly the crucible of creativity.
I am not saying that you can only experience “flow” and creativity when you are in balance. I am saying that “flow” and innovation more often results whenever you have brought your good and evil into balance. You’ve no doubt heard that there is a strong connection between madness and artistry. I’m sure this can be true for external, visible art forms and expressions. However, the inner artistry of the soul, out of which a flowing peacefulness, newness and joy are experienced, originates in the quiet balance between its opposite components.
Take Nothing For Granted
How do you create and sustain the balance? You take nothing for granted. You ask yourself every time you make a decision, “what will be the consequences for my internal balance and the lives of others who will be affected by this decision?” Every choice you make has consequences for everyone involved. Will the choices you make result in you and others becoming self-righteous, bitter, angry, fearful, arrogant, unapproachable, resentful, condescending, lethargic or vengeful? Will they help you and others become enthusiastic, confident, courageous, bold, accepting, forgiving, self-giving, loving? Examining both the intended and unintended consequences of our choices – both before and after making them – is the perpetual task of self-balancing.
Lest you think that this is all too much of a chore to do consistently and successfully please know that we do this all the time anyway without being aware of it. In order for this subconscious activity to be of any value as a tool to help us maintain our personal balance, we need to raise it to conscious awareness so that we can begin to take more control of its effects in our lives and in the lives of others.
We create the quality and legacy of our lives by the choices we make every day. These choices are shaped by what we consider to be possible and impossible. Can good and evil in your life ever be balanced in the “impossible” way I’ve described or must they forever war against each other? Is it impossible to live a full, joyful, peaceful and productive life within the tension between good and evil? If you think it is impossible, then the only possible alternative is to be caught up in the battle between the two such that you experience life as a chaotic cycle of ups and downs, highs and lows, with only sporadic spells of serenity.
I call your attention to a statement that Jesus of Nazareth made when talking about how to treat those who do you evil. After saying that it is easy for anybody to love his/her neighbor, he proclaims that you should actually “love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45). This is tantamount to saying that you should do what you thought was impossible. If you think something is impossible, you won’t try to do it.
Jesus was challenging his hearers to rethink what was possible for them to do. He knew that people experience good and evil on a personal and not an abstract level. His challenge was not that we should be exactly as God is, but rather to look at the good within us as originating from God and as the only proper response to evil. When this occurs, evil is counterbalanced with good and the resulting reality is one of peace, harmony and “flow.”
Abraham Lincoln summed it up well when he asked, “am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?” Impossible? It depends on what you think. As Henry Ford said, “if you think you can or you can’t, you’re right!”
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