Writing Right with Dmitri: Evil Revisited
Ed. Note: The discussion immediately following last week's column got so intense, and brought up so many questions, that I felt I owed you another crack at the subject. Let's see if I can get it right this time.
Okay, here's a Halloween theme: monsters. Is unthinkably horrible behaviour the purview of monsters – some evil beyond the realm of imagining – or is it the result of human tendencies that get out of control?
I think it's the latter. I am very much in favour of the doctrine espoused by the late Walter Kelly, who said, 'We have met the enemy, and he is us.' By the way, that slogan is a parody of a military quote by Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry, the victor of the Battle of Lake Erie. Go look up 'Battle of Lake Erie' and laugh at our ancestors. But I think Kelly got it right, and I'm going to tell you why. And yes, this has to do with writing.
We now know that if two-year-old children were six feet tall, weighed 250 pounds, and had access to weapons, their aggressive behaviour could cause serious harm.
'Origins of Human Aggression', video by Concord Media (2012)
I quote this, not because I endorse this organisation – I don't know enough about them, which is why I'm not linking – but because I agree with that one statement. So do most church nursery workers. My mother also knew that 'Beginners (four-year-olds) are dumb.' Her solution? 'You hold out a cookie. You break it in half. You say, "Share". They get it.' Humans are dumb, and humans can be evil. We need help to get better.
Look at bullying, and then turn on the news and watch a war. Read Twitter posts where people oversimplify complex issues, skip the whole boring process of thinking, and resort to name-calling. Then see the suffering that results. I don't care which set of candidates you support: if your opinions come pre-packaged, you're harming your neighbour.
I think the concept of 'evil' is often a duplicitous way we have of denying the fact that stares us in the face every day: humans do these things. They support leaders, they give people power. The people they give power to are far too often no better than aggressive toddlers. They don't like a journalist, so they order their minions to dismember him with a bone saw. This happened. Human beings did this. They are afraid they'll lose something, so they tell others to separate parents from children. Or bomb another country. Or deny food to the hungry. Human beings do this, all the time. They're doing it right now.
This is the world we live in. This is the world we write in. How can we go on? How can we tell stories? What kinds of stories should we tell the other humans – humans who are both perpetrators and victims of all this fear and aggression? That's the question.
There is no way from one person to another. However loving and sympathetic we try to be, however sound our psychology, however frank and open our behavior, we cannot penetrate the incognito of the other man, for there are no direct relationships, not even between soul and soul.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor. Bonhoeffer, author of The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer, who inveighed against 'cheap grace' and told Christians to follow Jesus, even if it meant dying. Especially if it meant dying. Bonhoeffer, who was put to death by Nazis. Six-foot-tall, 250-pound toddlers with weapons. That Bonhoeffer said, '…we cannot penetrate the incognito of the other man…'
I left out the next sentence:
Christ stands between us, and we can only get into touch with our neighbors through him.
Who, to Bonhoeffer, was 'Christ'? The spirit of humanity. The model of what a human being should be. Not an impossible ideal, but a revelation of what the creating spirit had in mind. For Bonhoeffer (full disclosure: and for me), that model includes love and acceptance, but also unwavering devotion to truth.
Okay, less pretentiously: a writer friend once told me, 'You wouldn't hurt a fly, but man, you can be devastatingly honest.' This was around the time she also described me as 'a half-bubble off plumb.' From the mouths of Texas journalists….
It is that spirit that enables us to communicate. I would argue, with Bonhoeffer, that it is the only way we can communicate – through reference to ourselves as we should be, not as we are. That doesn't mean we don't look evil square in the eye and call it out. Or that we make excuses for ourselves or others. But it means we recognise our kinship with the problem, and our need for grace to effect repairs.
Bonhoeffer wrote something in a letter at Christmas, a short time before he died. German Christians have been singing it for a long time:
If now the silence filters deep around us,
Let us hear that full sound
Of that other world that spreads invisibly around us
The high praise songs of all your children.
Von guten Mächten, translation at this link.
Is that kind of hope ridiculous in the face of all that's wrong? I don't think so. Neither did Bonhoeffer. Nor do you, or you wouldn't be trying to bridge the communication barrier.