Saturday, September 27, 2008

The line dividing good and evil

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Alexander Solzhenitsyn

My first job out of college over 30 years ago was as a counselor in a residential program for chemically addicted teenagers. I had lived an extremely sheltered life as a "good girl" and trained to be a teacher. When I graduated, there were no teaching jobs available. This one came along, so I took it. I didn't have to wait very long to learn I was in way over my head.

The kids in the program lived there for 6 months. During the first few weeks, we didn't see their families at all. After that, they joined us once a week for family therapy groups. I still remember one young man in the program who told me his story during those first few weeks. The abuse he had suffered at the hands of his mother was horrific. In some ways I dreaded meeting her. In other ways, I was anxious to do so and give her a piece of my mind.

I'll never forget what happened when I finally got that opportunity. I interviewed her privately before the group session and heard her story. The terrible things she had done to her son paled in comparison to what had been done to her as a child. My heart broke as she cried with me and I realized that she had actually come a long way in her life and was trying to do her best as a mother.

That experience early on in my career laid the groundwork for me in many ways both professionally and personally. I guess the old adage about never judging someone until you've had a chance to walk in their shoes sort of sums it up. I've found that no matter how evil someone has been in this life, if they're willing to honestly tell you their all begins to make sense.

That doesn't mean I think we should excuse people for their behavior. When dealing with the mother I referred to above, we were all very clear with her that she was to NEVER hurt a child in any way ever again. And she was in the midst of paying the consequences for her actions. But when I heard her story - I felt a human connection with her and the compassion that comes from knowing that in her place, I might very well have behaved the same way.

I have recently been having similar questions since the Republican Convention was here in my town and I saw the way security was handled. The problem for me was that many of the people involved in all of that...the Mayor, the Police Chief, the Sheriff, the City Attorney, and the President of the City Council...are all people I have known for over 20 years. I consider most of them my friends. Beyond that, I know them well enough to know they are good people. But they were all involved in doing something that was horrific to me.

So I end up asking myself alot of questions about human beings and human nature...our capacity for good and evil. And I wonder about my own capacity for the later in all its many and varied forms. We are always much more adept at seeing it in others than we are at seeing it in ourselves.

As Solzhenitsyn says, there is no such thing as an evil "them" to be banished from our midst. If we're going to get rid of or reduce evil in the world, we're going to have to find a way to sort it out in our own hearts.


  1. This is a wonderful post. I find myself at a loss about how to respond to people who are on "my side" of the political aisle when I hear them talking about the "other side" as if voters with that allegiance were unmitigated evil. I'm currently reading Sharon Begley's book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and she tells a story in there about a Buddhist monk who had been imprisoned by the Chinese for 18 years, and tortured many times during that period. When the monk was later asked whether he was ever afraid during that time, the monk replied "Yes, there was one thing I was afraid of. I was afraid I may lose compassion for the Chinese." (p. 152). If only we could keep our common humanity in mind to this extent!

  2. Thanks for reading Madeleine and for that wonderful comment. I might have to check out Begley's book!!!

  3. Excellent post!

    I just wandered into your blog when I googled the quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It is one of my favorites of all time (I just discovered it a few days ago).

    I really appreciated when you stated that, "I've found that no matter how evil someone has been in this life, if they're willing to honestly tell you their all begins to make sense." That is also something I have discovered in my life.

    I am definitely onboard with working on the evil in my own heart.

    Thanks for a very nice post!


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