If we can’t drive a wedge of awareness into the current cycle of how we make judgements, if we can’t find ways to break the loops we’re trapped in, we are condemned to continue repeating them over and over again until we are swept away by the sheer volume of our irrelevancy.
This is an adaptation of Einstein’s famous dictum that attempts to remove its immersion in the flawed problem/solution paradigm. It’s not just that we need different modes of finding answers to our problems, but that we need to break out of seeing life as a series of problems in the first place.
This isn’t a quest to “improve” human-kind. It’s not about setting an agenda for achieving any Utopia. It is a response to the level of cognitive dissonance we are saddled with if we don’t adapt how we think. It is asking us to stop, and recognize that – like the “victim” of “run-away car syndrome” – we need to stop confusing the accelerator for the brake. The proliferation of so-called unintended consequences we suffer from today, outcomes that, when looked at from outside the blinkered view of “common sense” or received wisdom, are precisely what one would expect from looking at a wider view of inputs and outcomes. The ways in which partial understanding of these circumstances still leaves us striving to shoe-horn new insights in such a way as to plug them back into the old paradigm – like applying System Thinking so multinational corporations can “succeed more, or somehow better!”
These are all signs of a tectonic shift under way. If we’re not careful, we will keep one foot on each plate until we are forced to drop-off between them into the sea.
Let’s see how this effects the ways in which we talk about Good and Bad, or Good and Evil.
It’s obvious that we have multitudinous reasons for making judgments regarding suitability. We tend to call those things we like, good; those we dislike, bad; and those we really get worked up about, evil. We also enjoy condescending over judgments made by the “cute,” or “naive,” or those we consider “hopelessly backward.”
Between these two attitudes is just such a place to drive a wedge.
Before we get there, let’s deal with the last defense of the exasperated, “I know what’s good! I know what’s Evil! Don’t go mucking it all up and saying it’s all good, or go with the flow! Oh! I GIVE UP!”
Petulance and straw men are no response. When we feel exasperation set-in we need to notice how it is pointing at an area of our conditioning we are uncomfortable examining. If we can approach it calmly, without the need to defend any pre-set agenda, we might be able to get past it.
I was just thinking that after all these thousands of years of admiring the petulant lad who cut the Gordian Knot, maybe we could start putting some effort into untangling it instead!
Any “ultimate” understanding of good is beyond us. We can never know enough to arrive at a verifiable conclusion of what is ultimately “for the best.” This should be about as hard a lesson as the one we faced as children when we wanted to put on a cape and fly off a roof. It’s really quite simple. No fraction of the infinite is large enough to stand in for the whole. So, without being able to hold all of the infinite within our judgment we cannot know the ultimate anything, including ultimate good, or bad, or evil.
This leaves us with conditional understanding. Yes, our understanding is pretty much like all the rest of our kit, it’s limited. Again this should be relatively easy to accept if we don’t allow willfulness to intoxicate us with its justifications.
We are surrounded by hints that, even granting all of that, we are not totally limited in our response to life. We have access to creativity and have experiences of the way almost any aspect of our lives may, through what I might call Grace, return to us as a Gift. We find that when we get together with others that there can be another sort of Grace or Gift, and we can transform our lives through how we choose to see it. These are hints at something beyond limits, something outside the accountancy of a + b must equal a + b, and not anything greater or different. We find that a + b can end up equaling something unheralded.
We also have hints that these moments are connected to practices, or even unforeseen circumstances, that shatter our expectations and allow the unexpected to take form. We sense a connection between our organism’s instincts and clear and sincere responses with those moments while, on the other hand, we are aware of the demoralizing – as opposed to simply annoying – results of compulsion leading us against “our better judgment, or nature.”
These hints and insights do lead to something other than a Hobbesian dystopia as the only possible end of absolutism and the will to control. That between the false choices of Utopia or Apocalypse is an entire habitable landscape for us to explore. And it is no coincidence that this space is not a trap, made up of repeating the past; nor an illusion of life, set in some never to be arrived at future. This is the landscape of the here-and-now.
Again, this might seem like a lesson for early childhood and not some incredible terra incognita at the edges of human awareness. But so it goes. Such has been the power of the delusions that have led us to this point.
This question of Good and Bad, and the related but not identical question of Good and Evil, lay right at the center of why this has been the case.
Ontogeny reflects Phylogeny. This is a case where personal maturity and cultural maturity may be reflections of each other. It is a sign of greater maturity to be able to discern that there are traps for us waiting to swallow us up in self-righteousness when we jump to presumptions of what is good or bad, or evil. It is a sign of adolescence to want to use a misunderstanding of one’s growing strength by confusing it with power and using it as a cudgel to insist on our right. So it shouldn’t be surprising that our long cultural adolescence, this misspent youth since before Alexander and reaching at least to the reductio ad absurdum of a Justin Bieber, should reflect that same trajectory. As with any prolonged, misspent adolescence; our survival is rather in doubt! But our destruction is just about assured if we don’t address it!
Let’s turn the telescope around and look in from the other end. Evil.
No one, outside of poor little “Butters” Scotch and his alter-ego, Captain Chaos, actually sees themselves as evil. Every tyrant is, in his own lights, a justified victim redressing wrongs. This does nothing to excuse their actions. This does not diminish the harm. But it is never-the-less the truth. Whether through physical brain damage or some level of abuse they were subjected to, or some combination of the two, they feel justified in their actions – or they would not act. If the combination of circumstances and the right level of intoxicating self-righteousness were not there, we wouldn’t have Hitler, we’d just have another fuming inconsequential failed artist, ex-soldier, paper-hanger with an enormous chip on his shoulder, or we would have a suicide – before reaching rock-bottom in that bunker under Berlin in 1945. But right to the end, he was convinced he was the wronged party, the victim of an enormous injustice and betrayal.
It’s not just the list of “successful” mass-murdering politicians and business leaders who feel this way. Every pitiful molester and off-the cuff wife-beater feels the same justification. As do we all, when we let ourselves, or when we cannot help ourselves. – An interesting study I saw recently showed how lack of sleep and a “demanding ” infant doll were enough to reduce our kind and gentle host to the edge of infanticide within about forty-eight hours.
None of this excuses, or acts as an apology. This is what makes so much of life potentially tragic, that we are all capable of arriving in extremis. But to see this unfairness as an excuse to jump on the bandwagon and tally up our own set of justifications to set off after Evil is to just jump on the pile.
Is there “good” hate? Isn’t that what we are lobbying for when we want to claim an exemption from the rule for our own righteousness?
Can we really maintain that pose with a straight face?
This gets to the heart of what sincerity is all about. The cultivation of a space in which we suspend our reactions and poll our organic natures to see whether something rings true or is just another form of intoxicating exceptionalism.
Practicing this form of sincerity takes us to where we can see the “Problem of Good and Evil” as a bad habit that can be reformed. Not that we can “cure” everyone who does bad things, a therapeutic Utopia is just another pipe dream! But we can rid ourselves of a habitual reaction to destructive acts and find ways to deal with their effects that are not distorted by this delusion of exceptionalism.
The question of good and bad remains, but it is much more straightforward. We don’t set off on Crusade or Jihad against the merely bad….
Without welcoming the effects of a raging intoxication on our systems we can thread our way through the questions of what is better or not as good.
I would like to suggest that empathy and compassion would help us through much of that….