For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst?
Verily when good is hungry it seeks food even in dark caves,
and when it thirsts it drinks even of dead waters. (Khalil Gibran, The Prophet, On Good and Evil)
I have been forced to brood on the nature of evil and cruelty after a series of news paper reports came out recently.
Airhostess abuses maid servant.
Qualified doctor, public representative’s wife, brutally murders maid servant.
Clubbed with other stories of heinous evil, these provoked shuddering reflections on the nature of evil that I had encountered in my own journey so far.
I thank God for the kind hand that has kept me safe and sane and able to jot these down.
When I heard about an ancestor who specialised in banging his daughter’s head on the sharp edge of a grain box, because she had not prepared his dinner in time; I thought it was a made up story.
” How can someone tolerate that evil?” I remember asking, until the narrator, turned her eyes and looked at the woman sitting by her side.
In a shock of realisation, I understood and asked the lady, ” You? You were the daughter? My God!”
Later, in class, when the teacher waxed eloquent on a great poet ,my best friend and my namesake whispered to me about his cruelties to his family.
” He forsake his wife and children and would wander about seeking inspiration. Great poet he might have been, but good husband and father, he never was. Once when he returned from his six month sojourn, he saw his seven year old son sitting in his favourite easy chair. He pulled him out and thrashed him so badly that he started bleeding. I read a memoir by the son- on the great poet of whom he was terrified all his life…”
Evil, I understood then, can also have the face of genius.
The stories of Nazi Holocaust, or the evils of the Pol Pot regime, the slavery stories, the brutal war games or the murderous riots when human beings turn beasts- all are very real.
The veneer of sophistication that covers the human face often covers a venal expression. The greatest of tests come when power is given to human beings to lord it over others.A handsome Smeagol can turn into a despicable Gollum, if the Deadly Ring of Power, happens to become His Precious.
In a famous scientific study called the Milgram Experiment conducted by Prof Stanley Milgram of Yale University, the tendency of “normal people ” to obey authority figures and abuse hapless innocents was showcased. Once a person perceived that he/she was just an ” instrument”, obeying a higher authority, he/she tended to shift blame from their own selves.
This study can be read along with the Dementors and Death Eaters of many mythical series, the ganglords of evil who obey a “Higher Power” to whom they owe allegiance.
But as we see in daily life, it does not take a Voldemort or Sauron to inspire evil.
The person who suffers deeply often perpetrates deep suffering on others. It is almost a cycle of evil. The person is herself abused, feels no control over his /her life, feels an exaggerated sense of inferiority and of being slighted by significant others, and so waits for an opportunity to wreak all that aggression on a hapless victim. Explanations of brutal rapes, beatings, child abuse, marital abuse, subordinate abuse have often included this logic.
As the witches of Macbeth chanted,
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.
On reflection, I have found that in my most helpless conditions, I have been most angry with my beloved ones. “Displacement “, psychology calls it wisely. One tends to make scapegoats of others since one cannot handle the real issue on its face.So the abused subordinate will abuse his wife, she will abuse the maid servant, the maid servant will abuse the cat and so on and so forth..It reminds one of the nursery rhyme “The Farmer in the dell”.
I am pretty sure that the best of goodness and worst of evil is very much within every human soul. It just depends on the environmental triggers as to which comes out. It also depends a lot on what is considered “acceptable” and “unacceptable behaviour.”
Besides, if a poor maid servant from Manipur or West Bengal gets abused within the four confines of her Delhi home, which neighbour would care to take a peep?
So the perceived danger associated with continuing a loathsome behaviour also plays a role in perpetuating evil.
Lessons in psychology have taught me much about parental drivers, conditioning, reinforcement, prejudices, negative self-talk, internalisations, insecurities and all such jargon.Lessons in life have taught me some pungent truths.
Cruelty happens subtly, invidiously. Children can be the most vulnerable victims. If you tell a child that she/he is not good enough/beautiful enough/smart enough, it can be a mad ram inside the head for ages to come. Until, one day, with good souls around, one truly looks at the mirror and realises that the perpetrator had been a liar. One is good enough, beautiful enough, smart enough. Enough unto the day, the beauty thereof.
It is extremely important to protect children from negative insinuations and degrading talk. Perhaps they do not hear it from the close family, but we should protect them enough so that others’ evil attempts to poke a hole into that fragile self confidence, is never successful.
Almost as a serendipitous event, I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye recently. This book, about the systematic destruction of a child’s psyche, told in the context of racial/feminine/power equations/sixties America, brought tears to my eyes. There was so much one could empathise with- some experiences are universal.
Morrison writes about how she was shocked into writing that novel, when a school mate wanted ” blue eyes ” , in the hope that it would get her acceptance, by making her beautiful. The prose is fire, scalding one’s fingers as one reads, and I again realised how good literature redeems; by making one go deep into one’s own experiences and cleanse the dirty remnants of one’s own prejudices.
Beauty is not equivalent to virtue, the author writes. She adds that it has taken 25 years for her novel to get truly accepted. It had been trivialised when it was originally published.
Cruelty and evil can have very handsome faces. Even pretty ones for that matter. Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds , as Shakespeare so wisely wrote.So we need not fall in for the designer brand versions of Ugliness being equated to Badness. If something inside you still resists, read Conan Doyle’s ” The Yellow Face.” All that is not pleasing to the eye, need not be that of evil. And in a like manner, there is nothing more pervasive than the myth, that all that is beautiful is good.
As human beings, I guess being aware of our own propensities to abusive behaviour, is the first step towards the magic of protection. We tend to be evil when we thoughtlessly speak, brag, disregard, turn a blind eye to suffering, and smooth a clean white sheet over the bloodied mess of our inner lives. And spray a perfume over the noxious fumes rising from within. “All the perfumes of Arabia…”
I have reached a stage in my life where I have started being very aware of abusive behaviour, the start of the first rung of evil in a relationship- between friends, siblings, parents, work place relations.
Instinct and experience warns a person of what to watch out for within herself/others.
Mirror, mirror on the wall
Tell me why evil is always on call?
The Law of Return much quoted in many books of spirituality, speaks of ” What you sow, that you reap.”
May we sow good thoughts, good imagination, kind behaviour, empowering words and noble deeds in our daily lives.
Our world, both inner and outer, can do with lot more of decent, good human beings who are respectful, tolerant and kind. We can do with far more introspection on whether our life patterns hold a lesson for us and less on envying the great lives that others apparently seem to have.
And yes, I think I have had enough of newspapers for a while.