I don’t believe in evil. In all my years, in all my travels, in all my painstaking observations, I’ve never detected it. What I have seen, though, is madness and ignorance, both of which, it seems to me, “evil” behavior can be more accurately ascribed to. Thus I’ve witnessed what appears to be evil but what I think is really the result of madness or ignorance. (By ignorance I mean lack of understanding of the underlying interrelatedness of people, and people with the natural world.) Thus a serial killer, for example, isn’t evil but rather insane (in the sense that he really doesn’t know what he’s doing, though he does it with precision), or he’s ignorant because he knows exactly what he’s doing but he allows himself to do it because he doesn’t see his sacred relationship with others.
I’m willing to concede that evil could very well exist and I’ve either been lucky enough to avoid it all my life or I’m just not perspicacious enough to recognize it when I see it. Let’s not be dogmatic about what we can’t see—human perception is at best a weak vehicle for clearly understanding reality. I think we’d all agree on that. Nevertheless, I’ve developed enough confidence in mine to say without too much discomfort that “evil” is a mental construct more akin to superstition than actuality.
In my last novel, Land of Fleurs, the two main characters (Robin and Denny) are journeying through a kind of fairyland of Nature. At one point they come across a woodcutter chopping down a tree. The newcomer, Robin, is aghast, asking her companion (and guide) how, if living things are sacred, he can countenance the killing of a tree. He replies that we kill all the time; unintentionally—while driving, for example, or inadvertently stepping on unseen creatures—and intentionally, as when we swat a mosquito, take antibiotics or dispatch a cockroach. We even kill to eat. She says that some people give up meat for that very reason and he asks her, “Have you never eaten a tomato?” She protests that tomatoes aren’t alive but he tells her that they are—the seeds contain life and they grow if you plant them—but who removes the seeds from a tomato before eating it? “We’re all killers in God’s plan,” he informs her.
Here are two brief excerpts:
Her face turns pale.
“We’re destined to kill, then? Isn’t that murder?”
“We say murder isn’t about killing or not, but a question of degree. Those who upset the balance maybe deserve to be called murderers. Those who take little and keep the balance are holy creatures. Or as holy as one can be in this world.”
“Are you a holy creature, Denny?”
“I try to be. It’s not something you just are—to me it’s like something you have to strive for every day.”
“And what about me? I fear I’ve killed far too much. I’ve taken more than I’ve given. Am I a murderer?”
“Not today you’re not. Not yesterday.” [She’s been there two days.]
“But can I keep it up? Will I even want to?”
“That’s up to you, isn’t it? You make decisions every day. You look at life—people, trees, ants, stones, pine cones, water, flowers—and you make decisions.”
Then, from the next chapter:
Robin stops and takes Denny’s arm.
“Does evil exist here, Denny?”
“That’s a tough question. You could say that the woodcutter chopping down a tree dances in the domain of evil, but no more so than the storm that drowns a sailor at sea or the fox strangling a hare with its jaws in order to feed its young.”
“It seems to be all around, then.”
“So how does one lessen the evil?”
“We can only lessen our own. Take out of need, never out of greed—that’s our maxim,” he says, and so sure was he when he said it that she knew it must be true.
“But the beauty you’ve shown me—the sanctity,” she says. “How can we keep it in sight without being overcome by the evil?”
“The only thing we can do is reduce the pain we cause and try as hard as we can to see beauty. And maybe even help others see it. This is all we can do, Robin. Taking too much—accumulating things—which is greed, which leads to evil, is the bane of life.”
It may seem strange that in the beginning of this post I said I don’t believe in evil, and in the novel excerpt above, I seem to be saying that I do. Why? Another of the many seeming contradictions?
Can we go back to my earlier discussion of religion for a moment? In that post, I said that I wasn’t a pantheist, even though I ascribed sacredness to all things, animate and inanimate alike. In doing that, I was drawing on a tradition, trying to create a symbolic unity that I thought a reader might not readily see or even admit possible. I see the unity, so that’s enough for me. It’s a similar case with “evil”—I don’t believe it exists but concede that it’s a powerful (and easily understood) symbol for helping to express what I’m trying to say. Remember, a novel is fiction, and not every device used has to be real, though I think it must reflect reality.
There, problem solved. Or is it really that easy?