Monday, 15 August 2011

Owning Evil

Jersey police have just confirmed that six people are dead after a knife attack in St Helier. The dead are three young children, two women and a man. They are believed to have been stabbed in a flat in Victoria Crescent, Upper Midvale Road. It happened at just after 3pm this afternoon. The identities of those who have died have not been released. A 30-year-old man is in police custody in Jersey Hospital where he is undergoing surgery. (1)

It is extremely difficult, when so shocked by this news, to try to make meaning of it, to find some kind of sense in a world where down one very ordinary street, the world has been turned upside down. But I think we must try to make an effort to understand how these kind of tragedies can happen, and also why it is so hard for our society to understand them.

One way of understanding a tragic event like this is to distance oneself from it; to consider this as something that can happen to other people. The more unlike the other is, the greater is the seductive power of this approach. The fact that the family seem to have been Polish has already led to comments of this nature, that "they are not like us". Violence erupts in our midst, but it is not something we are part of, it is outside of ourselves.

Modern humanistic therapy, as seen for example in the work of Carl Rogers, does not help here, and colludes with this distancing. For Carl Rogers, human beings are basically good. There is implicit here, and also in a particular kind of popular New Age thinking, which permeates much of today's society, a rejection of the Christian understandings (Augustine,  Irenaeus, for example) of what is termed "original sin" , which has been misused in some Protestant evangelism to inculcate feelings of guilt (especially in mass meetings), and then provide a way out in "decisions for Jesus".

But in this rejection, there is a fantasy that human beings can wipe away all their limitations by therapy, meditation or various New Age practices, and this rejects the potentiality for both good and evil which is there within human freedom, which makes us who we are. Practices such as Co-Counseling, started by Harvey Jackins, take this as a basic axiom: human beings are good - and evil is therefore purely the result of learned misbehaviour which can be eradicated by counseling.

Carl Rogers was not blind to the destructive behaviour in the world around him. He noted that "I am very well aware of the incredible amount of destructive, cruel, malevolent behavior in today's world-from the threats of war to the senseless violence in the streets." But he went on to locate the focus for the destructive influence in society, rather than people themselves. He said that he believed "that it is cultural influences which are the major factor in our evil behaviors." .

In an open letter to Carl Rogers, the therapist Rollo May pointed out the problems with this scenario. He wrote:

This makes culture the enemy. But who makes up the culture except  persons like you and me? You write about "the destructive influence of our educational system, the injustice of our distribution of wealth." But who is responsible for this destructive influence and injustice, except you and me and people like us? The culture is not something made by fate and foisted upon us.

The culture is evil as well as good because we, the human beings who constitute it, are evil as well as good. Our culture is partially destructive because we, as human beings who live in it, are partially destructive, whether we be Russians or Japanese or Germans or Americans.

The culture admittedly has powerful effects upon us. But it could not have these effects were these tendencies not already present in us, for, I repeat, we constitute the culture. When we project our tendencies toward evil on the culture- as we do when we repress the daimonic-the evil becomes the culture's fault, not ours. Then we don't experience the blow to our narcissism that owning our own evil would entail.

If you conclude that the trouble lies in the fact that human beings are so susceptible to influence by their culture, so obedient to orders they are given, so pliable to their environment, then you are making the most devastating of all judgments on evil in human beings.

Against this, and very much in line with what evolutionary biologists like Stephen Jay Gould were saying, Rollo May saw human beings as born neither intrinsically good nor evil but as potentially both, and saw part of the therapist's task to help people to come to terms with their darker side, because that could also potentially be harnessed for good. If, however, this
was not done,  then people would be prey to this darker side of their persona breaking out in destructive ways, and this is very much what has happened in Jersey, whatever the exact reasons for it happening:

I see the human being as an organized bundle of potentialities. These potentialities, driven by the daimonic urge, are the source both of our constructive and our destructive impulses. If the daimonic urge is integrated into the personality (which is, to my mind, the purpose of psychotherapy) it results in creativity, that is, it is constructive. If the daimonic is not integrated, it can take over the total personality, as it does in violent rage or collective paranoia in time of war or compulsive sex or oppressive behavior. Destructive activity is then the result.

This means that aspects of evil-anger, hostility against the therapist, destructiveness-need to be brought out in therapy. Personal autonomy occurs not by avoiding evil, but by directly confronting it. Therapists need to be able to perceive and admit their own evil-hostility, aggression, anger-if they are to be able to see and accept these experiences in clients.

Rollo May said that what he wanted, against Roger's approach, was a "realistic approach" that acknowledged both that there was such a thing as human evil, and that the potential for that lay within ourselves, as part of our evolutionary heritage; to see human beings as only good, he thought was a form of narcissism in which we reflect our desires about human beings as good rather than seeing the world as it really is, in other words, a sophisticated kind of wish-fulfilment underpinning the ideas about human nature.

I am pleading for a realistic approach to human evil. A colleague tells me that when you had the discussion with Martin Buber in Michigan you said, "Man is basically good," and Buber answered, "Man is basically good - and evil." I am arguing that we must include a view of the evil in our world and in ourselves no matter how much that evil offends our narcissism.

In my experience, our human adventures from cradle to grave take on a zest, a challenge, an attractiveness when we see and affirm this human potentiality of both good and evil. The joy we experience will have, as its other pole, the self-assertion, the hostility, the negative possibilities that I have been talking about. In my experience it is this polarity, this dialectical interaction, this oscillation between positive and negative that gives the dynamic and the depth to human life. Life, to me, is not a requirement to live out a preordained pattern of goodness, but a challenge coming down through the centuries out of the fact that each of us can throw the lever toward good or toward evil.

This is very much in line with the idea of evil in the writings of Irenaeus where unlike Augustine, Irenaeus sees human beings as born in an "imperfect state" -  " imperfect in the sense of containing the potential for sin, though not the actualization of it."(3). In this approach, also taken up by the existentialist theologian John Macquarrie, "No good exists in evil since good is understood as "the striving to become," while evil strives for the ultimate opposite of becoming: which is, literally, to un-become." (3)

The tragedy which we have seen unfolding in Jersey shows us the darkness at the heart of all human beings, including ourselves, that potential for "unbecoming".

It should shock us, because the loss of life, and the death of the young children in particular, is horrible, and it is happening within our community. But it should also shock us out of a complacency about any ideas about the "essential goodness"
in human beings which overlooks the darkness that is within us all. This can emerge from troubles over debt, over employment, over drugs, but it could not emerge if it was not part of the basic potentiality within us.

"Although we may recoil in horror when we read in newspapers or history books of the atrocities committed by man upon man, we know in our hearts that each one of us harbors within himself those same savage impulses which lead to murder, to torture and to war" (Psychiatrist Anthony Storr).

And in the fragmented and individualistic society in which we live, these dark events may become more common, like the deaths of these young children, or the case of a man found dead in a flat for weeks, because we have lost our sense of community. Perhaps the tragedy would still have happened if people were more concerned about their neighbours, but perhaps the warning signs may have been seen, and tragedy averted. We can never know.

But that possibility was not there because of that, and we surely need to rebuild community, so that it might not happen again. There is no magic formula, no instant way of doing this, but just as an event like this brings communities together in sorrow, let us hope that shared sorrow helps us to look at different ways, however small, of reaching out and connecting with our neighbour, and not just our friends.

And let us also lament the tragedy of this poor family, and as we learn more about this family, that may help us better mourn their loss, and remember them. Here is part of a poem by Lillian Rosengarten which speaks of this:

What is this strange, strange world where children die?
I am your mother stooped in grief. I am your father's vacant eyes.
I am the children.
When death stretches its arms to me I sink into the earth
covered in  moss and wildflowers.
Remember the spring of our years before a troubled twilight
Lifted its tentacles to crush you in a sea of tears?
Once we held you in our arms to suckle you with tenderness.
I had three children one is dead.
I had eight children, four are dead or two or eight
or all of them.

Wild with grief we cry for lost children. They were to make a better world,
lift us from this morass, the empty space of ashes.
Nightgown wrapped to suffocate, I tear it from my body soaked in sweat
As if to free myself from death or something else.
I dreamed a fire scorched the earth. Wild woman trapped, hold me I am cold.
Ism'al our child, how cruelly you were taken
I am your spirit mother guarding a legacy.
Is the world listening?
Bisan, Mayar Aya and Nur Abuelaish, you are all our dead children.
Now we shall be your storytellers your painter of dreams. We will paint your canvas
Filled with  small details, rich memories.
We must be the keepers of the earth.

(2) May, R. (1982). The problem of evil: An open letter to Carl Rogers. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 22, 10-21.

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