“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart ….” ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918–1956
A few weeks ago, I was shocked to hear my eleven-year-old granddaughter, Sophia, confide about herself to a friend, Calene, that she was bad. Luckily Calene took the news a lot better than I did. She stopped what she was doing - painting a ceramic dish, turned, looked at Sophia with a smile, and casually said, “Yeah, it’s fun to be naughty sometimes, isn’t it?” After Sophia's confession was out of the way, they were back to enjoying their painting and being in each other’s company.
I was, however, perplexed, lots of question floated through my mind. Why did she call herself bad? What exactly is bad? Is it bad to think of yourself as bad? What’s the outlook in terms of living a good life for people who think of themselves as bad? Are we all of us bad – a little, a lot, is it fun? What are the antecedents to being bad?
We spend quite a bit of time evaluating others, situations, and ourselves on this good and bad scale. Usually, we are black and white, all or nothing in our judgments. Things and people (including ourselves) are either good or bad. And quite often we think they (we) are born however they (we) are. We don’t look for a backstory.
I was reading a children’s book recently, The Bad Seed, by Jory John. What bad stuff the seed does are things like cutting in line, not washing his hands or his feet, being late to everything, glaring and staring at others, never putting things back where they belong, never listening. All the bad stuff is somewhat humorous because they are relatively small missteps if we put bad and good on a continuum rather than on an either good or bad scale. We see that the behaviors we call bad are more like social conventions and might be seen with a different perspective in various families or cultures.
The Bad Seed’s backstory is also told. He started out with a big, close, fun family in a sunflower field. But then the petal’s dropped and he ends up in a sunflower seeds snack bag. He’s chewed up but ultimately spit out. After this traumatic event, he changed into a seed who was friend to no one, bad to everyone, a drifter who never smiled and lived with a don’t care attitude inside a soda can.
Jory John’s story gives the reader a sense that perhaps bad seeds, and we can extrapolate to people, are not so bad and perhaps their bad behaviors are connected to something that happened to them in their past.
Nice story. Some good lessons for those of us who want to be more compassionate and understanding. But what about really bad? Evil. How do we deal with that in ourselves and others?
The person I would consider an authority on evil from a psychological perspective is Dr. Roy Baumeister. Roy’s father was a Nazi. He wanted to understand good, bad, evil.
Let’s start with what’s evil? Baumeister says evil is doing intentional harm. And the scary part about evil is that all of us, according to Baumeister, are, under certain circumstances, capable of it. The less we think we are capable of evil, the more likely we are to find ourselves in situations where we commit evil.
So, if we are looking for ways to prevent ourselves from becoming evil, one takeaway is to know that we should not think that evil people are only out there, but rather to understand that the capacity for evil lurks inside us too. We are all capable of intentionally hurting others.
In fact, Baumeister is quite interested in why we don’t harm others more. I read recently that 91 percent of men and 84 percent of women had contemplated or at least fantasized about murdering someone. What keeps us from doing it?
The answer Baumeister offers is that we are constrained from doing evil – perhaps by laws or threats of punishment, but the most effective restraint is internal. We must learn to deal with our evil impulses. We must exert self-control, self-discipline, to not be evil.
Frankly that dismayed me for a moment. Human beings seem to have a lot of trouble with self-discipline. I know about that firsthand.
Then I remembered the power of self-compassion. Self-compassion has been linked to several good outcomes including well-being, relationship satisfaction, motivation, resilience, AND self-discipline.
When we find ourselves being overwhelmed by emotions, thoughts, fantasies in response to life not going the way we’d like, we can practice healing self-compassion instead of lashing out, freezing, or running away.
I particularly like the practice of self-compassion I’ve learned from working with Dr. Frank Rogers and others including Dr. Kristin Neff. The prelude to self-compassion is to take a breath and get centered.
My husband John calls this process getting in his “love place.” He can get in his love place before anything happens so that he is less likely to be instantly triggered by challenging circumstances or people.
I asked John to describe what his love place is like. He says it’s a place where he feels safe, peaceful, without fear or judgment, connected to others, and of value. It’s a place from where he can easily, even effortlessly, see good in others. When I have asked him how he gets there, he must think a bit. Yes, practical things like good sleep help, and being in nature, exercising. Thinking about his values – that this is where he wants to be, a person who is an oasis of peace, helps him. It is him at his best.
And when John gets knocked out of his love place, he goes to a place he calls his toy closet. It’s a place he hid as a child after a hurtful experience of being punished for knocking over his milk by his father. It’s a lonely, hopeless, helpless, overwhelmingly sad place, but it feels safe…away from people who may reject you or hurt you.
I think we all have metaphorical toy closets, places we hide after being hurt. When we go into our toy closet is when we need to practice healing self-compassion to get back to our love place and life.
Our self-compassion practice has 5 steps:
1) paying attention to, noticing, being mindful of what’s happening both inside and outside us. Being able to name the situation as difficult, as part of being human – registering the emotions, thoughts and what St. Ignatius called interior movements without being carried away by them.
2) understanding, at least being curious about, if not empathetic to the fears, longings, aching wounds, or stifled gifts which might undergird these interior movements.
3) turning toward our hurt with love, kindness, tenderness
4) sensing the supports we have around us presently or have had in the past which still give us strength. We have people who do care about us, grandparents, grandchildren, cousins, uncles, aunts, friends, neighbors, teachers, mentors, and perhaps we can sense the Sacred - a cosmic heartbeat present to us. We have all experienced some moment of tenderness which we can either recall or imagine and receive love and strength.
5) The final step, after going through this process, is noticing any new healthy bud ... maybe a new useful perspective, seeing it as an embryo of new life which we can embody to help us on journey.
I have outlined and emboldened certain letters in each number above because they make an acronym – PULSE which helps us hold the different aspects of the self-compassion practice and connect us to the metaphor of a universal compassionate heartbeat. To summarize: Pay attention to your interior movements, understand where they might be coming from, love these parts of yourself which need to be seen and acknowledged and even appreciated, sense support, embody the embryo of new life
Often after just practicing the first step of paying attention, we can get out of our painful toy closets. John says that just noticing that he’s in his toy closet helps him get out. But there's also something to be said for staying in the toy closet long enough to go through the healing process.
When we practice self-compassion, it’s very different from self-pity. Self-pity comes from the perspective that I am the only one around here who is suffering. Self-compassion acknowledges that I, like all human beings, experience hurt as well as hurt others. It’s done without blaming and shaming, but rather tenderness. It's the power of being aware of what we are experiencing - not pushing it away, but rather connecting to our common humanity, and directing tenderness and strength toward ourselves that alleviates our suffering, gets us up on our feet ready to give life another go, and... strengthens our capacity to be compassionate toward others.
Now we don’t know what eventually turns the Bad Seed around in the book. The author, Jory John, only says that the Bad Seed decides to be happy. (If I had written the book, I'd have him practice a bit of self-compassion as part of the turnaround). Jory John, however, just says he made a choice to be different (that is important too). With that decision, he goes forward experimenting here and there – holding doors for others, saying thank you and please, smiling, and …even though he sometimes feels bad, sometimes forgets to listen, he also feels kind of good. Sort of a mix. He comes to the realization that perhaps he isn’t such a bad seed.
The Bad seed does end up getting where we often arrive after practicing self-compassion. I hope that is where Sophia will get. We see we are sort of a mix. Sometimes in our love place - aspiring to be there more often, and sometimes in our toy closets. Most importantly, we stop sucking up or passing on the hurt. We don’t need revenge or to harm ourselves. We learn to understand and even appreciate our interior movements. We accept our common humanity – our innate goodness as well as our tendency to get pulled off track. We are aware of our susceptibility to committing evil acts. We give up excuses and judgments and tend to our wounds and… heal.
Yes, sometimes we will do evil. It can result in grave consequences. We acknowledge that. But, if Roy Baumeister is right about the importance of self restraint, then perhaps one of our best chances for snuffing out the lure of evil, stomping out the power of evil, is not only by being compassionate toward others, but also by diligently and tenderly tending to our own seeds of suffering, nurturing them, so that healthy buds blossom...and... when our insides are healed and healthy, we bring health and healing to the outside.
How might we journey together to the good life by tending our wounds, practicing self-compassion, and healing?
If you'd like to hear and the Bad Seed read https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yu772gNfA68
(as always, hit reply to send me personal comments)