Photo by Jack Prichett

The practice of mindfulness allows us to think more broadly and flexibly, going beyond the human habits of myopia: us or them, black and white, all or nothing thinking. Though many believe strongly in the concepts of good and evil, they are social constructs. The word evil is most commonly used to characterize people or groups who commit atrocities and horrors. Like most labels, it’s a very broad term that subsumes a wide continuum of “badness” and wrongdoing. There is no scientific description or measure of evil. The word “good” is also highly subjective, often based on what is valued and personally desired by the beholder.

The problem with blindly using terms like good and evil are many. One is that they are unclear. Simply calling someone good or evil ignores complexity, obscures details, and invites us to rely on assumptions rather than observations. It’s tempting because it gives us a shortcut, saving time and energy and allowing us to avoid hard work in the short-term. Another is that it assumes we have an unchanging core or essence that can be reliably categorized and reacted to accordingly. This, in turn, limits our options for how to respond, creates unintended longer-term consequences, and reduces the possibility of lasting beneficial change.

I’ve written before about the seduction and danger in extreme positivity; however, the current political climate has made this stand out in stark relief. Writer Michael Kruse called this level of optimism an exploitation of “the utterly American belief in self above all else and the conviction that thoughts can be causative, that basic assertion can lead to actual achievement.” Extreme positivity, at it’s sharpest edge, conflates success with strength and “purity”, and relates to failure and doubt as if they were contagious diseases – or perhaps a sort of heresy.

The popularity of seeing only the good (aka relentless positivity or eternal optimism) grew in the US out of the work of minister and author Norman Vincent Peale. His 1952 self-help book, The Power of Positive Thinking, advocated affirmations and visualizations to attain a permanent state of absolute optimism that would lead to happiness and success. Though it was widely criticized by experts, it was embraced by the general public. For example, psychologist R. C. Murphy, in his article Think Right: Reverend Peale’s Panacea, called Peale’s philosophy “saccharine terrorism”:

For him real human suffering does not exist; there is no such thing as murderous rage, suicidal despair, cruelty, lust, greed, mass poverty, or illiteracy. All these things he would dismiss as trivial mental processes which will evaporate if thoughts are simply turned into more cheerful channels… A person turns his eyes away from human bestiality and the suffering it evokes only if he cannot stand to look at it… he looks away only when he feels that nothing can be done about it … The belief in pure evil, an area of experience beyond the possibility of help or redemption, is automatically a summons to action: ‘evil’ means ‘that which must be attacked … ‘ Between races for instance, this belief leads to prejudice. In child-rearing it drives parents into trying to obliterate rather than trying to nurture one or another area of the child’s emerging personality … In international relationships it leads to war. As soon as a religious authority endorses our capacity for hatred, either by refusing to recognize unpleasantness in the style of Mr. Peale or in the more classical style of setting up a nice comfortable Satan to hate, it lulls our struggles for growth to a standstill … Thus Mr. Peale’s book is not only inadequate for our needs but even undertakes to drown out the fragile inner voice which is the spur to inner growth – R. C. Murphy

Murphy illustrated the seduction in taking false refuge in the black and white labels of good and evil. This illusion of certainty allows us to feel safe, powerful, and beyond reproach. We might simply determine who is good or bad and then associate ourselves with one and avoid the other. Yet, if we only dare to look a little more closely, to think more critically, the whole thing falls apart.

“…reality is like gravity. It exerts its own force.” – Peter Wehner, Ethics and Public Policy Center

You might be wondering, “What about those who seem incapable of empathy or preventing themselves from doing harm?” Science has revealed that a very small number of humans have differences in our brains that make it difficult, if not impossible, to feel true empathy or to effectively control baser impulses. Certain kinds of congenital and acquired brain injuries can cause this, but we also see it in:

  • Antisocial personality disorder (ASP), a pattern of socially irresponsible, exploitative, and guiltless behavior (sometimes also called sociopathic personality disorder), has a lifetime prevalence rate of 0.5% to 4% according to the DSM. While people with this disorder may commit “evil acts”, it’s more helpful to describe them as impaired and at an extreme disadvantage. Many become embroiled in the criminal justice system and experience co-occurring mental health and addictive disorders. They have a higher risk of traumatic injuries, accidents, suicide attempts, death by homicide, serious illness, and poor health outcomes.
  • Intermittent explosive disorder (IED), characterized by unpredictable hostility, impulsivity, and recurrent aggressive outbursts, has a prevalence rate of 3.9% to 7.3%. Brain studies are revealing IED may be associated with abnormal activity of the neurotransmitter serotonin and/or damage to the prefrontal cortex, impacting impulse control and behavioral inhibition. It’s correlated with high rates of incarceration, damage to property and injury to others, impaired relationships, addictions, self-harm and suicide.

With the right treatments, resources and supports, some individuals with these disorders can succeed and thrive. A longitudinal study (Robins LN, 1966) of people with ASP showed that over a 30 year span, 12% no longer showed evidence of the disorder while another 27% had improved (but not remitted). Medications and therapies have proven useful in reducing the symptoms of IED. If we succumb to the temptation to label these folks as evil, we will attribute their actions to willful choice and throw them away with no hope for rehabilitation.

Admittedly people with brain injuries, ASP and IED represent extreme cases. Yet, none of us are 100% good and all of us are capable of committing “evil” acts under the right circumstances. We have plenty of anecdotal evidence and scientific experiments that demonstrate that people are complicated. Even our most beloved heroes have flaws and our most reviled enemies have good qualities. For example, Nelson Mandela, a man widely known for peaceful protest and forgiveness that contributed to the end of apartheid, trained for guerrilla warfare in his younger years, even helping to plan a bombing campaign. Ted Williams, regarded as one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, worked quietly and tirelessly throughout his life aiding the effort to end childhood cancer, AND he was known for his violent rages, even being accused of abusing two of his four domestic partners.

How can mindfulness help us resist the polarizing impulse to fall into extremes of judgement? The attitudes and practices of mindfulness, through clear-eyed present moment personal experience, guide us toward a place of balance between extremes. A dedicated practice of mindfulness can expand our:

No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the
growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate
existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent
in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture,
but within oneself. If there is a stage at which an individual life
becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its
unfolding and accepts the responsibility for a life lived in the midst
of such paradox. There are simply no answers to some of the great
pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life
a worthy expression of leaning into the light.

Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

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