This article is the first in a series addressing the topic of evil. It is important for all people, I believe, to strive to give some accounting to evil—what is it, why does it exist, what is its role in our lives, how can we protect ourselves from it, etc.—for unpleasant though the subject may be, evil is an ever-present and powerful part of life.
There is no legitimate side-stepping the issue of evil though various strategies are sometimes used to try and do this very thing. Here are some examples: “Evil is just an artificial category developed by organized religion(s) to define and promote their own arbitrary moral code.” “Good and evil are spiritual constructs that have no place in a rational, scientific discussion of reality.” Or, “Life just happens. It is essentially random, without any rhyme or reason, good or evil behind any of it.”
Even within the field of psychology the issue of evil is sometimes deflected on the supposed grounds that it is the proper domain of the priest or pastor rather than the psychotherapist. The reality, however, is that all psychological perspectives and interventions affect the spiritual life of the individual, and all spiritual and religious beliefs have ramifications for the psychology of the individual. For instance, an atheistic worldview is sometimes driven by unresolved anger, disappointment, and loss in the individual’s life. Conversely, the ardent religious fundamentalist may be motivated more by self-righteous arrogance and psychological projection than by any real knowledge or relationship with his/her deeper self or God.
The issue of evil must be wrestled with for a number of reasons. Perhaps most important is the fact that there are competing forces in the universe and within each particular life. There is a life force within a tree, for example, which seeks its growth and development. This force pursues the realization of the unique nature and characteristics encoded within the seed from which it came. But there are also opposing forces, such as fungal infections and insects, that would parasitize the tree, diverting its life energy for their own purposes, and thereby weakening or killing the tree. Similar dynamics are present in each human life, but here the situation becomes far more complex, for with us it is not just the body which may come under siege, but the very spirit, psychological and emotional fabric of the individual which is attacked.
Unlike a tree, a human being has consciousness, an ability to perceive, analyze, discern, place value upon, and render decisions regarding different situations and courses of action. Evil is not an issue for a tree because it lacks consciousness, but for us it is an issue and one which cannot be avoided. For beings capable of consciousness, life takes on qualities that do not exist for other animals and plants. It is lived at an entirely new level—a level of responsibility and accountability not shared by unconscious creatures. For us, even the decision to recognize or deny the reality of evil affects the movement and progress of evil in itself. We may deny the existence of a spiritual reality in our heads, but that only ensures that that same reality will eventually kick us in the butt (to put it lightly) later on. The choices we make, the values we live by, the beliefs we adopt all have an effect on what comes our way in life.
Jungian psychologist Morton Kelsey summarizes the issue well in his book Discernment: A Study in Ecstasy and Evil:
…evil must be accepted as real and consciously faced and dealt with. If one does not do this, the actual powers of evil fall back into the unconscious, and from there they operate without interference. They result in projections upon others, and the consequent social disruptions range from neighborhood squabbles to global war. They can strike one in physical illness, and with nameless anxieties and depressions. Unconsciousness, as Jung has said, is evil par excellence, the primal human sin, and it is the moral duty of each of us to become as conscious as we can, to differentiate good from evil as best we can, and to deal with evil rather than acting in its bondage. (pp.100, 101)
Fortunately, just the act of acknowledging and taking steps to protect yourself from evil can have a hygienic effect upon your life. Whether it is protecting yourself from identity fraud, keeping emergency equipment in the trunk of your car, taking steps to prevent a house fire, or becoming more conscious of your own attitudes and issues and how they trip you up, attention and caution regarding the different ways evil may enter your life seems to offer protection above and beyond the specific actions you take. It is as though evil shows respect for those who respect it. Those who ignore, deny, or trivialize evil are more likely to be paid an eye-opening visit.
Kelsey, Morton, Discernment: A Study in Ecstasy and Evil, Paulist Press, New York, NY, 1978.