THE BLOG
10/01/2013 02:29 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

How to Explain Evil to Your Children

Last month I had one of the worst days I can remember. I spent much of the afternoon at a wake for a lady named Deb, who died much too young. A six-year battle with breast cancer took a 43-year-old mom from her 7-year-old daughter, Abby. Many tears were shed at the funeral home, as hundreds and hundreds of people showed up to say goodbye.

What makes it worse is that Deb was buried last month, on 9/11. Since 2001, this day will be forever linked with the most horrendous terrorist attack in U. S. history. And for those close to her, it's doubly sad as today was the last day that they ever saw their friend.

Things went from bad to worse, though, as the Illinois county where my wife grew up became known on a national level as a crime scene. The original story was that a little girl named Willow Long, from Effingham County, had wandered away from her house the previous Sunday morning. Her disappearance sparked a massive search with literally over a thousand volunteers braving almost 100-degree heat.

What none of those volunteers knew was that Willow had been murdered and her body dumped in a dry creek-bed before the search even began. It had been carried out by her uncle, who has already allegedly confessed. The sketchy details are Google-able, but I warn you that they are graphic, and highly disturbing.

I have always tried to tell my children about bad things... when they ask about them. For instance, they both know that I had cancer and beat it, and they know that Deb had cancer... and didn't. When they asked why I was so dressed up yesterday leaving the house, I told them that I was heading to say goodbye to my friend Deb, who was going home to baby Jesus.

My little guy, Ben, didn't miss a beat. "So she died?"
"Yes, Ben, she did."
"I feel poor for her."
"I know, buddy. I know."

But my bro-in-law, Pat, had a much more difficult discussion with his daughters last night. The disappearance and murder of Willow Long has hit the community of Effingham hard. Just what can you even say to your children who are not only frightened, but now exposed to pure evil for maybe the first time ever?

In fact, Pat had no idea what he was going to say to his girls about this extreme example of heinousness. So after work last night, he took a shower, got dressed, walked down the stairs, and simply blurted out this:

We have all been given a gift... the gift from our Creator named free will. We can use it however we please. For good or for ill. It is what sets us apart from the other life in this world. We are created in the image of God, fully free to do as we wish. It can be a wonderful blessing to those around us... and a terrible curse.

There is evil in the world. Recent events reveal that in the starkest possible terms. And sadly evil has power. Good people have power as well, and that power can overcome evil.

You see, evil only has what power we give it. This makes evil weaker than good. Evil will try to shock us into numbness, break us with its cruelty, and silence us with fear. We need to realize and remember one simple thing: once the waves of shock, anger and disgust pass, we can take away the power of evil. We can use the evil for what it was never intended: to inspire us to do good.

Every kind and good act that it inspires steals a small measure of the pain that it created. It doesn't matter how small the act of goodness is; if you do it out of love and kindness, and it is inspired by the pain, you can slowly reduce the amount of pain and tip the scales. Picking up a pencil in the hallway at school for someone who dropped it. Holding a door open for someone. A kind word to someone who you don't normally play with, and on and on.

It reminds me of the old saying "Do you know how to eat an elephant? One bite at a time." We take something that we have no control over, fear, and we have a choice. We can dwell on the pain we feel, or we can use it to inspire us for good. That is the only way we will rob it of its power.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is all you have to say to your children whenever they are confronted by something evil... and that evil can be anything: cancer, a tragedy, despots, racism, famine. They can all be rallying cries to make the world a better place.

I don't know what I would have told my own children in that circumstance, but I'm also glad that I didn't have to before I read what Pat said to his children. I am now more prepared than I was before. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to hug my children, and tell them that even when things seem so bad, there is still so much good in the world.

And it all starts with us.

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