Realization That Evil Exists
I ran down the empty hall and shoved open the double doors that led to the parking lot. It was cold, colder when the gusts of wind ripped by, and I’d left my jacket in the conference room. I didn’t care, though. I drank in the fresh air, inhaling until my lungs hurt, but it wasn’t the air that refreshed me—it was being away from Rayburne and his lawyer. I leaned against the locked car, trying to process what I’d just seen.
When I considered what I experienced in that room, there was only one word that came to mind: evil. And when I considered how it had operated, I knew that I’d never see the world the same way again.
When I used to come across tales of people committing atrocities, I would promptly decide that they were Bad People. This was a tidy conclusion that contained the problem of evil in a box and placed it on a distant shelf, safely away from my own life. Because I was a Good Person. And while Good People might occasionally make honest mistakes, we didn’t get involved in anything seriously evil. After all, we weren’t Bad People.
All my life I had imagined that, as a Good Person, under no circumstances would I have anything to do with evil. If I’d been a Hutu in 1990s Rwanda, I would have stood against the mass murders of the Tutsi. If I’d been a German in the 1940s and had friends who were getting involved with the Nazis, I would have decried their sickening ideals. If I’d lived here in Texas a couple hundred years earlier than I did, I would have been a tireless abolitionist. From the moment I could think about such things until the moment I walked into the deposition room, that idea was at the foundation of my identity.
And now, out in the parking lot, with dead leaves scuttling across the ground in front of me, I understood that it was supremely unlikely that that was true. In each of those examples, large segments of civilization bought into the evil, so the odds were not in favor of me being one of the few crusaders for good. So how could it happen? How, then, could people like me, average folks who thought of themselves as Good People, get caught up in horrific crimes against humanity? Nobody ever wakes up in the morning and says, “What I am going to do today is evil, and I’m okay with that.”
When I thought through each of the examples of society-wide atrocities, examining them through the new lens I had gained in that deposition room, immediately I saw it: In every single case where people cooperated with evil, they used eloquent lies to assure themselves that what they were doing was actually good.
The Hutus had a story: The Tutsi had committed all sorts of atrocities in the past, they greedily hoarded way too much of the wealth, and they were plotting to wipe out the Hutu any minute—so, really, murdering them was simply an act of self-defense. The Nazis had a story: The Aryan race was just trying to create good and beautiful things, but the Jews kept tearing it all down. Jews enslaved the poor Aryans by lending them money and jacking up the interest rates, and they had nefariously worked to cause the devastating November Revolution of 1918 while the German men were out risking their lives in the war. The slaveholders had a story: The Africans were subhuman; the owners were, in fact, doing them a favor by exposing them to civilized culture and supplying them with food and shelter.
And, of course, Rayburne had a story. He hadn’t stolen that old man’s life savings for personal purposes. He simply got Mr. Jaworski to invest it, and perhaps he had made a mistake or two in the formation of his business.
There was always a story—a lie. Every time.
In that instant my Good Person armor fizzled away like droplets on a hot stove, and I was left exposed against the awareness that there was no ontological difference between me and the genocidal Hutus or the Nazis or the slaveholders; the difference between me and them was merely the difference between truth and lies. Whether or not any one of us is a Good Person or a Bad Person can fluctuate from day to day, from moment to moment, depending on the number of lies we allow ourselves to believe.
I felt vulnerable standing in the empty parking lot, suddenly aware that evil was closer to me—had always been closer to me—than I ever understood.
Aches lingered in my body for the rest of the day, as if I’d been exposed to toxic fumes and had to wait for the poison to get out of my system. Aside from that, I was happier than I’d been in weeks. As I drove home from the deposition, I was high on the certainty that this was the answer I’d been looking for when I stumbled across that passage in Mere Christianity that night next to Donald’s crib.
C.S. Lewis said that you need to “dust off your mirror” to come to know God. I had memorized the quote by now and could hear the words as if Lewis were standing next to me, speaking them in his British accent: “[God] shows himself to some people more than others. ot because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for him to show Himself to a man
whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition.” I’d been puzzling over that statement, trying to imagine how one would go about dusting off one’s mirror in order to encounter God. Now, I had the answer.
If it were true that God is the source of good, then to seek God is to seek the good.
When I puzzled over why I’d had zero experiences with the divine, the situation wasn’t so confusing when I replaced the word “God” with “the source of all goodness”. I might find
myself sitting at the kitchen table, a cheeseburger from a fast food chain in one hand, a magazine ridiculing celebrities with cellulite in another, using most of my mental energy to stew about why I deserved to live in Tarrytown, and at some point I’d think, “I can’t imagine why I haven’t had any experiences of God!” Then I’d decide with a shrug that the problem must be that God doesn’t exist. When I imagined that same scene with me shouting, “I can’t imagine why I haven’t had any experiences of the source of all goodness!” the problem became clearer.
To get my spiritual “mirror” in the right condition, per Lewis’ advice, I had to seek goodness. I had to try to be good. And, as I had just learned in that horrible, airless room, doing whatever feels nice and labeling yourself “good” doesn’t cut it. To truly be good, you have to shut down the infinite human capacity to rationalize away evil.
Prayer: Every morning, start your day with this prayer: O Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer You my prayers, works, joys, and sufferings of this day, for all the intentions of Your Sacred Heart, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world, in reparation for my sins, for the intentions of all my relatives and friends, and in particular for the intentions of the Holy Father.
Excerpted from “Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidently Found it” by Jennifer Fulwiler. She is also the author of “One Beautiful Dream.”