In the book, “People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil” by M. Scott Peck, M.D., what defines ‘evil’ is discussed at length. The author tells the reader that he “shall be speaking with my specifically Christian voice”.
“There are three major, different, “living” theological models of evil. One is the nondualism of Hinduism and Buddhism, in which evil is envisioned simply as the other side of the coin. For life there must be death; for growth, decay; for creation, destruction. Consequently the distinction of evil from goodness is regarded by nondualism as an illusion. This attitude has found its way into suppposedly Christian sects such as Christian Science and the recently popular Course in Miracles, but it is considered heresy by Christian theologians.
A second model would hold that evil is distinct from good but is nonetheless of God’s creation. To endow us with free will (essential for creating us in His image) God has to permit us the option of the wrong choice and hence, at the very least, to “allow” evil. This model which I term “Integrated dualism,” was the one espoused by Martin Buber, who referred to evil as “‘the yeast in the dough’, the ferment placed in the soul by God, without which the human dough does not rise” (Good and Evil, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1953, p.94).
The final major model, that of traditional Christianity, I label “diabolic dualism.” Here evil is regarded as being not of God’s creation but a ghastly cancer beyond His control. While this model has its own pitfalls, it is the only one of the three that deals adequately with the issue of murder and the murderer. “
In a recent blog I talked about my reluctance to refer to people as ‘evil’, but rather prefer to think of behaviors as evil. I’m not sure why this is the way I feel, on one hand I think it may be because my understanding (if one can have such a thing) of ‘evil’ has always been that it is the complete absence of ‘good’. The broad ‘biblical’ idea of ‘evil’, that it is diabolical, satanic, that it knowingly, willfully works against good. On the other hand it is possible that I simply do not want to believe that a parent, a sibling, anyone close to me, could be ‘evil’ (based on my own definition of ‘evil’).
As I read this book I realized that my aversion to using the term ‘evil’ in regard to people could be explained by the author’s deduction, “When a child is grossly confronted by significant evil in its parents, it will most likely misinterpret the situation and believe that the evil resides in itself.”
Not understanding, not clearly being able to define ‘evil’ may also be attributed to the author’s observation that “when confronted by evil, the wisest and most secure adult will usually experience confusion. Imagine, then, what it must be like for a naive child who encounters evil in the ones it most loves and upon whom it depends. Add to this the fact that evil people, refusing to acknowledge their own failures, actually desire to project their evil onto others, and it is no wonder that children will misinterpret the process by hating themselves. “
The author tells us that the most frequent reaction to ‘evil’ is confusion.
“The evil are “the people of the lie,” deceiving others as they also build layer upon layer of self-deception.”
The author also tells us that “evil people are to be feared, but are also to be pitied. Forever fleeing the light of self-exposure and the voice of their own conscience, they are the most frightened of human beings.”
The distinction the author makes, using his ‘specifically Christian voice’ between ‘evil’ and ‘sin’ is that someone who is evil will subtly, persistently, and consistently repeat ‘evil’ acts, and do so refusing to acknowledge it. He tells the reader that it is the ‘consistency of their sins’ that makes someone ‘evil’, rather than a doer of evil acts. It is a lack of ‘self-recrimination’ that suggests someone is ‘evil’.
“The evil in this world is committed by… the self-righteous who think they are without sin because they are unwilling to suffer the discomfort of significant self-examination.”
A predominant characteristc, however, of the behavior of those I call evil is scapegoating. Because in their hearts they consider themselves above reproach, they must lash out at anyone who does reproach them. They sacrifice others to preserve their self-image of perfection. Scapegoating works through a mechanism psychiatrists call projection. Since the evil, deep down, feel themselves to be faultless, it is inevitable that when they are in conflict with the world they will invariably perceive the conflict as the world’s fault. Since they must deny their own badness, they must perceive others as bad. They project their own evil onto the world. They never think of themselves as evil, on the other hand, they consequently see much evil in others…Evil, then, is most often committed in order to scapegoat, and the people I label as evil are chronic scapegoaters.
I define evil “as the exercise of political power- that is, the imposition of one’s will upon others by overt or covert coercion- in order to avoid spiritual growth”. In other words, the evil attack others instead of facing their own failures.
Evil people are often destructive because they are attempting to destroy evil. The problem is that they misplace the locus of the evil. Instead of destroying others they should be destroying the sickness within themselves. As life often threatens their self-image of perfection, they are often busily engaged in hating and destroying that life – usually in the name of righteousness.“
This is all very hard for me to acknowledge. It would mean that I have been surrounded throughout my lifetime by genuinely evil people. I thought I would apply Dr. Peck’s theories to some of the people in my life that I have struggled the most to endure.
Using these characteristics as a guide, my mother would be deemed ‘evil’, as she spun a very elaborate web of lies about her childhood, her family of origin, health issues within the family, her early married life, the death of her first born, the way she met her husband, the reason she and her sister had such a strained relationship, the abuse she perpetrated upon her children, her problems at work and in the community where she lived, designed to portray her as someone innocent who always gave 100% in everything she did, only had good intentions, but was constantly met with adversity and people ‘out to get her’. She would not acknowledge that she ever did anything that contributed to her problems in life. Everyone else was always at fault.
Using these characteristics as a guide, my sister would be deemed ‘evil’, as she too spun a very elaborate web of lies, practiced revisionist history, about our abusive childhood, her family of origin, her religious beliefs, her relationship with me, her relationship with her co-workers and friends, why she is unable to hold a job for any length of time, why she lives a life of isolation, why she has changed churches at least a half dozen times in roughly as many years. She sees everyone around her as ‘persecuting her’ for her religious beliefs, though she will not acknowledge that she judges everyone as ‘less than’, as ‘so-called Christians’, as ‘doing Satan’s work’, and her disdain for those she’s discerns as ‘inferior’ is evident in her manner and attitude.
Neither my mother, nor my sister, have ever apologized for anything that’s happened between us, they have not acknowledged that they played any role in hurtful events that have taken place in our lives. Everyone else is to blame, everyone else owes them an apology, they have nothing to feel badly about.
I have made amends with my mother and sister and on each occasion apologized for whatever I may have done that caused them pain. I have acknowledged my role in the dynamic that was our family of origin. I have tried to compensate for those hurt feelings, by reaching out, making offerings to them both to begin anew, but have been rejected each time, accused of being dishonest, disingenuous, or that I was covertly accusing them, suggesting everything was their fault.
Using these characteristics as a guide, my sister-in-law would be deemed ‘evil’, as she has repeatedly excluded family members, cut off communication, used abusive language and bullying tactics to control and dominate others. Even after her behavior has been identified as hurtful and emotionally abusive, she persists. She has revised her own history to create an appearance of abandonment by her mother though there is evidence to the contrary, and to suggest that her children are indifferent toward her, have little contact with her, are not beyond ‘blackmailing’ her emotionally, though she does not acknowledge her detached parenting style as a possible cause. The rest of the world is at fault for her hardships and socially difficult interactions. Her ex-husbands were the cause of her failed marriages, not her infidelities, her co-workers are the cause of stress on the job not the way she interacts with people. I, as the outsider in her family, am the cause of emotional upset because I express my feelings, not because she controls and withholds communication and interaction among members of her family causing rifts and hurt feelings.
I have made amends with my sister-in-law on numerous occasions, apologized for whatever wrongs she may have perceived me to have done to her, if I believed I may have hurt her, though she does not accept those apologies and continues to bring up things I have said or done, in some cases things I don’t even remember saying or doing. Recently she reluctantly admitted to having made a mistake, begrudgingly saying “I made a mistake, alright?!”, but still not apologizing for having done so, in fact, suggesting her mother should have corrected her or spoke up, transferring the responsibility to her mother, rather than acknowledging it as her own.
None of these people seem capable of doing self-examination, of identifying that they have played any role in the dynamics of their families or social interactions. I have, in fact, heard more than one person suggest that things just seem to ‘happen’ to them, as if they have no control over their lives, their environments, as if they don’t contribute to their lives, but rather endure them.
By this doctor’s definition of ‘evil’, I would have to conclude that there are in fact, ‘evil’ people and perhaps I have been surrounded by them much of my life, which is a very disconcerting realization to accept.
I have spent a great deal of time in psychotherapy, doing reflective, introspective work. I tend to blame myself for everything, the way everyone else feels, thinks, acts. I see myself as someone who is responsible for the feelings of others, so I’m always looking at situations and examining what my role was, how or whether I participated in a given situation.
As an example, I used to think I was just being ‘strong’ and ‘independent’ by trying to control every situation. I was very opinionated and let everyone know, honestly, what I was thinking, without regard for how that might make them feel. I more or less ‘steamrolled’ right over their emotions with little to no regard. I believed that having been oppressed for so long, I then had every right to be independent and take control.
I lost some dear friendships for a while. I found myself struggling with my emotions and ideals alone. Through therapy I realized I had overcompensated, let the pendulum (as my friend Juli discussed recently) swing too far toward the opposite extreme. I did a lot of reflective work, but in doing so, I seem to have swung the pendulum too far once again, taking on a self-sacrificing role, so as to not hurt or wound anyone around me by sharing my own needs and concerns, not burdening others.
I think in some ways, perhaps, taking a submissive and passive role is more comfortable to me because it is what I knew, the role I grew up with, it is the role that saved my life and allowed me to survive an abusive childhood.
I am still struggling to find a comfortable place, in the middle, somewhere in between dominant and submissive, where I’m able to protect myself as well as be supportive of others.
This book has really helped me to further understand that the sickness of our parents, of the people around us, of those who take advantage of us, is not our own sickness, we don’t have to take responsibility for the ‘illness’ of others.
I’ve got two more books on my reading list that I believe I will benefit greatly from, “Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers” by Karyl McBride, Ph.D. and “Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day” by Anne Katherine, M.A. I know that I am a work in progress… I would like to think that by the time I’m 50 years old, (only 2 years and 5 months from now) I will have developed a better understanding of myself, how I effect the world around me and how to be happy in my own skin.