It's easy to forget that we are all perfect in our own design. Sometimes we muck it up with habits and choices that do not serve us.
The question of evil can crop up almost anytime, but it becomes pressing when war, with its mass violence and atrocities fills the news. Violence comes in many other forms, as we all know, so settling the questions about evil needs to be addressed.
Evil manifests in the world through actions, and although an evil act almost always is associated with violence, there are other aspects, such as destructiveness, oppression, and victimization. Yet to understand evil, we need to stick with actions. Having bad thoughts, bursting out in anger, and saying in the heat of an argument, “I could kill you” fall short of an evil act.
All actions, whether labeled good or bad, are based in a thought, feeling, or impulse. So where do evil thoughts come from? Answering this question is the only way to get at the root of evil. Let me present the view that evil is a learned behavior. No one is born evil, and there is no cosmic satanic force that destines human beings to be evil.
A learned behavior that leads to extreme violence or wrongdoing has the same factors behind it as neutral or even good actions. The major factors are
Upbringing and the morality a child absorbs
Social pressure and conditioning
Lack of self-awareness
Poor impulse control
Anger and the potential for violence
The presence or absence of fear
Unconscious, irrational impulses
Human nature isn’t inherently evil, but if these factors take a wrong turn in someone’s life—or the life of an entire society—evil gains a toehold. A child who witnesses domestic violence is more likely to commit domestic violence later in life. A society rife with prejudice, bigotry, and us-versus-them thinking will justify its violence, turning evil into something necessary and even morally right. We speak of “good” wars to justify mass killing and destruction, which turns into a self-perpetuating cycle since the enemy also believe it is fighting a good war.
There is no getting around the fact that human beings are conflicted, which means that negative impulses inside us are at war with their opposite. This is the price of free will. A lobotomized human being who is rendered incapable of doing any violence violates the human capacity to be free. The fact that the vast majority of people do not commit evil acts is enough to show that our capacity for free choice on balance favors socially responsible behavior.
The factors that create our learned behavior tend, to a huge degree, toward good. As a species we care for the weak and sick; offer kindness and charity, and raise our children to be good. As a reminder against gloom and pessimism, humans act on our inherent goodness in countless ways.
Many futurists are optimists, foreseeing a world that has the capacity to end war, disease, and poverty. The rationale behind such predictions depends on a great deal of technology acting to improve life more, just as it has in the past. But the technology behind nuclear and biochemical weapons underlines the fact that science is morally neutral and essentially independent of emotions—hating the atom bomb didn’t prevent two nations from building planet-threatening nuclear stockpiles or developing more lethal biochemical arsenals.
Once you understand the multiple factors that lead to evil actions, what is to be done? First comes empathy—no one is immune from inner conflict, fear, and anger. Second comes self-awareness. To know why wars start, look inside yourself—external conflicts are the projection of inner conflicts. Third is to develop you own humanity by living from a deeper source in consciousness. If you consciously do those three things, you will become a unit of peace consciousness, which is the greatest contribution any single individual can make to counter evil.
Against the capacity for evil, we all possess the capacity to live in peace consciousness. This isn’t a futile strategy. Peace consciousness has risen to dominate people’s worldview everywhere. The invasion of Ukraine is almost universally condemned as a regression to behavior that was once considered normal (following the belief that might makes right and the strong have power over the weak). The outrage that is felt over such aggression is paired with incredulity that a country could resort to atavistic behavior that the rest of the world is quickly evolving past and leaving behind. The use of economic sanctions instead of all-out war against the aggressor is another sign that violence is no longer the default response of nations.
The expansion of awareness allows the factors listed above to be reversed. When someone repeats self-defeating axioms (Life is unfair, No one ever changes, Everyone has his price, etc.) —don’t credit these as the truth. They are a perspective that closes the door on the expansion of awareness, which is the worst kind of self-defeat. Evil is a label we pin all too easily on others, which is the surest way to slam the door on our self-knowledge. Every time someone else gets blamed, the accuser has failed to take responsibility for his or her own share of anger, fear, injustice, and inequality.
In many ways the futurists who are optimistic have truth on their side, but it won’t emerge as a redeeming quality until we turn inward. Evil is the worst symptom of a closed mind, and the way to find healing is to open your mind, and keep it open.
Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle with permission
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