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Why Do Bad Things Happen? (Part 3)

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GOOD VS EVIL THINKING
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In the last post we arrived at a conclusion that will surprise many people: If the good parts of your life are to have meaning, the same must be true of the bad parts. This is a continual message delivered by the world's wisdom traditions. It's a fantasy to believe that being good will keep you from confronting the bad in life, or that there is ever enough pleasure to eradicate pain. The ills that visit every person's life exist for a reason. Yet each of us is fostering a different set of reasons in our heads.

At a superficial level, you can indulge in a blame game that never ends. The world contains enough malefactors to keep blame going for your entire life. My parents made me this way; my boss hates me; corporations are evil, and so on. As we keep projecting blame outward, the short-term effect might be that you feel better. It's crudely satisfying to judge, blame and hate. But even as the roster of villains proves endless, blame postpones the day when you have to face your own involvement. The world's wisdom traditions are not superficial. There is no point in abandoning blame in order to feel better, to look good in the eyes of others, or to play the role of saint.

Rather, getting beyond blame is a way to actually solve the problem of suffering. In a sense, to act like a saintly martyr who turns the other cheek and patiently awaits for goodness to prevail is just as superficial as blaming other people. Life is dynamic and complex. If you are ever going to get to the bottom of your own suffering, you have to be alert, aware, and constantly flexible. Playing a role, like taking a rigid moral position, freezes the mind. Consider a harsh judge on the bench who gives the maximum sentence to every defendant and refuses to consider mitigating circumstances. Like a stopped clock, this judge may be right twice a day. There are malefactors who deserve harsh treatment. But what about the countless defendants who deserve to be treated flexibly, taking all their circumstances into account?

There's a harsh judge inside each of us. Freud labeled it the superego, an aspect of the psyche absorbed in early childhood when the wrath of a parent seems absolute. Young children understand morality in black-and-white terms. They are praised for being good and punished for being bad. As a person matures, shades of gray enter the picture. One adapts to the truth that there is good and bad in everyone and reasons for actions that blur the line between right and wrong. But some part of us retains the memory of a black-and-white world. On that basis, there are millions of people who hold on to a clear-cut scheme of morality. This scheme is sometimes called Old Testament or fundamentalist, yet religion doesn't necessarily dictate its terms. Childhood punishment probably plays just as big a part.

When bad things happen, all of us refer to our inner compass. We compare the present moment with a model of good and bad. In the case of people driven by the superego or by rigid religious teachings, the following principles are basic:

1. Two universal forces contend for control of creation, one being good, the other evil. Human beings are caught in this titanic struggle between light and darkness.
2. Forgiveness is provisional, blame is permanent.
3. Guilt tells you when you have done something wrong.
4. Judges, both inner and outer, have the right to assign guilt and blame.
5. God is the ultimate judge, keeping an eye on all sin and wrongdoing.

When this scheme is embedded in your psyche, your reaction to bad things is predictable because you have so little room to maneuver.

1. Your first instinct will be to look for someone to blame.
2. You will generalize that bad things are done by bad people, not by people who made a mistake or had a moment of weakness.
3. You will not be satisfied until someone is punished.
4. Random misfortunes will seem like hidden messages from a watchful God.
5. Self-esteem will depend on how perfectly you obey the rules.
6. Breaking the rules is always wrong, even when there are mitigating circumstances.
7. Anyone who challenges your dogma is morally suspect.
8. Life contains hidden punishments delivered by God.
9. Temptation comes from the devil or the dark side of creation.
10. You must defend good in order to prevent evil from gaining the upper hand.

This is the scheme that millions of people applied to the problem of terrorism after 9/11, at a time when "us versus them" thinking was encouraged by a right-wing administration. Other voices and more reasonable views were drowned out. But it wasn't just the right wing, which sees itself in charge of moral values for the rest of society, who reacted that way. Because we all have a harsh inner judge inside, the vestige of a child's black-and-white view of the world, the voices of fear and revenge came to the surface.

As long as you believe that universal good is warring with universal evil, you cannot escape constant vigilance, which brings with it several very negative things. Vigilance is stressful and leads to tension. The fact that vigilance is unrelenting makes it fatiguing, and to fend off fatigue, you must become rigid in your watchfulness. That's why in times of crisis, authority becomes harsher and more demanding. Everyone has to be watched; no one is exempt. Except for the watcher himself, which is how society arrives at paranoid watchdogs like J. Edgar Hoover, who become monsters of morality while keeping their own failings a deep secret, even from themselves.

We can call this whole scheme moral fundamentalism; it is the most basic view of the universe and our place in it. What are the benefits? To a fundamentalist, there are many.

1. The scheme is simple. You know where you belong in it.
2. No troubling ambiguities exist.
3. Your sense of goodness is reinforced by clear rules about sin and virtue.
4. Justice comes down to retribution, which satisfies our primitive desire for revenge.
5. Society knows who should be included and who should be excluded.

To see the fundamentalist model at work, one doesn't need to live among hard-core religionists. Watching a baseball or football game suffices, because sports are a field where the enemy is clear, the goal is unquestioned, and the rules must be followed or you incur a penalty. The rise of religious fundamentalism in the past few decades has also caused moral fundamentalism to seep into politics, which is why, in the present divisive landscape, it becomes necessary not simply to defeat your opponent but to turn him into an immoral culprit.

To get beyond a black-and-white world requires more than growing up. The whole scheme starts to fray, and ultimately break down, only when certain key insights begin to dawn.

1. Good people do bad things, and vice versa.
2. Revenge doesn't solve the problem of wrongdoing.
3. Judging against others opens you to their judgment.
4. Everyone is alike in being tempted; everyone is alike in wanting to be forgiven.
5. A punishing God cannot be reconciled with a loving God.

At first these insights are troubling. No one likes to feel the ground shift under their feet. From the outside, it's hard to comprehend just how disturbing it can be for a fundamentalist to change. The simplest kind of compassion and sympathy actually feels dangerous and wrong. Live and let live feels like an invitation to let sin run riot. Lowering your guard means you will be attacked. Loosening the rules will automatically leads to depravity. Here we have a clue to how fundamentalism is enforced, not by the sheer satisfaction of knowing that you are good but from the hidden terror of falling from grace. Hellfire and damnation are totally necessary, because they justify the fear you feel. Only when you realize that you have set yourself up as both judge and victim does the scheme of fear and guilt break down. It dawns on you that you are divided against yourself, and then your goals change. Instead of constantly watching out for evil and guarding against attack, you long for a new kind of security that also includes peace and forgiveness.

(To be continued)

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